The Impact Of Oil Spills Biology Essay


An oil spill can be defined as the accidental release of liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the surroundings or the environment due to human activity. An oil spill is a form of pollution that has devastating effects on the environment. The term oil spill is sometimes used to refer to marine oil spills where there is a release of oil into the ocean, coastal waters or any other water body. On the land the oil spills are usually restricted and their impact can be eliminated quite easily compared to marine oil spills. The main cause of marine oil spills is associated with the oil transportation by tankers and oil pipes which makes up of about 70 percent of all the oil spills. The remaining percent of oil spills comes from offshore drilling, wells and spills of refined petroleum products such as petrol and diesel and also their by products.

The occurrence of large and catastrophic spills that can release up to 30,000 tons of oil or even more is relatively rare. The frequency of such events in recent times had gone down perceptibly. But this took a different turn when we experienced the worse and largest oil spill ever recorded in history, the deep water horizon oil spill also known as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or the BP oil spill. Though some oil spills may not be as extensive or worse like the BP oil spill they still possess the capability to cause serious ecological risks to sea birds and mammals. The result is the long term environmental disturbances that occur in coastal zones. Oil spills also have an impact on the economic activities of the people that depend on the sea for a livelihood. Public outcry over oil spills has led to the coming up of impressive technical, political and also legal experiences in managing oil spills.


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There are various factors that can lead to oil spills which range from accidents, carelessness to deliberate dumping. Tanker accidents are one of the popular causes of oil spills. Tankers can sometimes crash or run into un- expected land causing a crack or hole that allows oil to escape. They are highly publicized by the media and they release large volumes of oil into the oceans. Globally only a small percentage of oil spills occur as a result of tanker accidents such as explosions, hull failure, running aground or even collisions. Tanker accidents result in oil spills that are very harmful because of the large volumes of oil released at once. This poses a serious threat to the lives of marine animals and also sea birds. The spillage of oil due to a loading or unloading problem is another category of tanker accidents. This kind of spillage is the most frequent of the oil spills. Statistics show that between 1974 and 1998 there were 3,000 such accidents. However in comparison to accidents caused by collisions or groundings, their destruction is relatively minor.

Another cause of oil spills that is very common is known as runoff from the land. Engines that are land based e.g. car engines function on petroleum fuel and also petroleum based lubricants. The engines slowly release these substances leading to their accumulation on roads and in the ground. These minor everyday spills and leaks of oil from automobiles end up poisoning the soil. The motor oil can also find its way down through storm drains into sewers which drain into rivers and eventually out into the sea.

Natural seepage is another cause of oil spills especially in the oceans. When the earth’s tectonic plates move sometimes they release oil from the reserves trapped deep within the ocean floor. Human activities in the ocean such as drilling can also accelerate natural seepage. Natural seepage rarely happens on land and when it does it’s not much of a concern. The reason why natural seepage is disastrous to the ocean is because of the fact that oil is less dense than water, thus when released by the undersea tectonic disturbances it will always float leading to major oil spills. Oil extraction is another cause of oil spill. As oil is extracted from underground reserves it is often spilled in land and also in the sea depending on where it is been extracted from. To test a newly tapped oil well, the oil is allowed to flow out forming a geyser of oil spewing into the sky and all of that oil is allowed to spill. Accidents also do occur regularly in the oil extraction wells resulting in spillage (Stille 7)

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Oil shipping trucks and pipelines are another cause for oil spills. Pipelines that transport oil underground can develop cracks and leaks over a period of time which allows oil to flow into the environment. These leaks can be as a result of natural catastrophes such as hurricanes and earthquakes. They can also result from poor maintenance resulting in structural failure or from deliberate vandalism and attacks. Tanks or oil shipping trucks can be involved in road accidents thereby instigating an oil spill. Majority of this causes are as a result of human error or carelessness which fall under controlled factors. Oil spills may also occur due to machinery breakdowns, illegal dumping of oil and also intentional spillages.


Oil spills can have an impact on the environment, the economy, health and also the society as a whole. These effects can be long lasting and hard to get away with. Many oil spills have been documented in the scientific and technical literature though not all of the effects of oil pollution are completely understood and documented, an indication of the possible scale duration of damage can usually be found in the information available. However it can also be difficult to present a balanced view of the realities of oil spills given the fact that they are highly charged. Also the emotional nature of a spill and its aftermath can bring difficulties.

Oil spills result in both immediate and long term damage to the environment. Some of the damages that oil spills cause on the environment can last for decades after the spill occurs. There are various notable effects caused by oil spills on the environment. Harsh effects that oil has on the coastline or shoreline are the highly visible parts of an oil spill. Unless a concerted effort to clean up the shoreline is made the oil basically stays on the shore until the weather and time breaks it down a process that is extremely slow. The gooey mass that makes up an oil slick will litter the shoreline with an ugly black tar making it very dangerous since the shoreline is where much marine life is concentrated. Shorelines provide nurseries for fish and marine life, by contaminating the shoreline the oil possess a threat and are dangerous to the marine life in the area (walker 20).

Marine mammals such as dolphins, seals, whales and sea otters are killed by oil spills. The damage done to these animals can take different forms. The blow holes of whales of dolphins and whales are sometimes blocked by the oil making it hard for these animals to breathe properly and also to communicate effectively. Oil also coats the fur of otters and seals leaving them vulnerable to hypothermia. If the animals are able to escape these immediate effects the oil spill causes damage to their food supply by contaminating it. When the animals eat fish that has been poisoned by the oil spill they die or experience other problems. Oil spills take a deadly blow on the fish, shellfish and any other marine life. Sea birds are largely affected by oil spills and are seen as among some of the most vulnerable animals of open seas. Any oil spill in the ocean offers a death sentence to the sea birds. Some may relocate if they sense danger on time. However birds that dive into the waters for their food or gather on the sea surface are faced with the danger of being covered with oil. Most of the sea birds die from drowning, starvation and also from loss of body heat due to the destruction of the bird’s feathers by oil. Some birds also die after ingesting oil during attempts to clean themselves.

Oil spills leave long term damage to animal species, their habitats, nesting and breeding grounds that these animals need for their survival. This is one of the most far devastating environmental effects of oil spills. Though some species spend their lives at sea such as turtles they always come ashore to lay their eggs. Oil can harm these creatures if they encounter it either on the beaches where they nest or at sea. The eggs will be destroyed by the oil and fail to develop properly.

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Oil spill will have an effect on the economy in a negative way. The impact can range from loosing oil through the cost of cleaning and also the cost incurred due to lost productivity in certain industries due to the damage of shorelines and beaches. Direct economic costs brought about by oil spills can include the actual loss of oil from the spill. These direct costs will be small if the spill is small. In the case of a larger spill the costs will be much higher. The damage to the wildlife brought about by the oil spill will bring about costs incurred while cleaning the birds. The cost in lost fisheries will be another cost brought about by oil spills. Oil spills destroy beaches leading to a loss in tourism in areas where beaches and nearby oceans cannot be accessed. This leads to lower tourist revenues. Cleaning an oil spill is an expensive job and will take a heavy economic toll on the company spilling the oil and also its insurers (Nardo 33).

During an oil spill the clean up the workers come into contact with chemicals that are hazardous to human health. Research has shown an increase in respiratory symptoms, headaches, eye irritation and skin problems among the clean up workers. Mental studies done to people exposed to oil spills reveal that these individuals are likely to suffer from anxiety, post traumatic stress and also depression. Studies reveal an increase in DNA damage in people exposed to oil spills. Other potential long term risks to human health as a result of oil spills include lung, kidney and liver damage. The society will also suffer from an oil spill in that they will be loss of jobs due to the destruction of various industries by the oil spill. This leads to many families going without food and also some people may be mentally affected by the sudden loss of job. Due to the health issues that arise due to oil spills, families may find themselves with sick people to cater for which they had not expected (Alazraki).


Solutions are needed on ways in which we can deal with the devastating effects of oil spills. As we have seen oil spills do much damage to the environment, Human health and also the economy. Some of the ways to deal with an oil spill include skimming which happens to be a popular method. It involves cleaning oil spills by skimming the oil from the water using skimming equipment with fine filtering instruments. The oil spill will first be contained using booms, after which the oil that has collected into a slick is skimmed from the surface. Another method that offers solution to the problem is natural degradation. If oil does not pose a threat to the shoreline or the marine life the best way to deal with the spill is to allow the oil to break on its own. The use of dispersants is another method that can offer solutions. These are chemicals (dispersants) that break down the tension that keeps water and oil separated. The oil will collect in smaller droplets and sink allowing greater natural breakdown. Another method that can be of help is to release biological agents into the water to help bring about breakdown. These agents include nitrogen and phosphorous which promote bacteria in the water helping the oil to disperse and breakdown naturally.

Measures taken

Oil spill prevention can pose a challenge, but there are measures that can be adopted that can either prevent oil spills from happening altogether or they can provide a degree of damage control. These will require preparedness and also continuous improvement in each and every phase of operation where oil is produced, transported, stored or even marketed. Oil exploration and production facilities should adopt advanced technologies, materials and also practices. They should also ensure that they have multi backup systems for support in case of anything. Oil pipelines will employ computers, electromagnetic tools and also ultrasonic devices that will help in detecting weak spots on the pipe so that they can be repaired before a leak develops. Compared to years before marine vessels and terminals are being designed differently compared, tankers now are being built with double hulls. The storage tanks are being constructed with special materials so as to avoid corrosion. These prevention measures are not only in the oil industry but consumers also play an important role in ensuring that oils and other fuels are out of the environment. They are expected to observe proper handling methods and disposal practices (zdrazil)


In conclusion we know that oil plays a vital role in our lives which means that life as we know it would be hard without oil. Despite this oil spills have devastating effects on our environment, health and also economy leading to many of us calling for an alternative source of energy that can replace oil. Before a replacement for oil is discovered, human beings will have to continue to enjoy the benefits offered by oil and also suffer from the effects of oil such oil spills.