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History’s Most Devastating Oil Spills

History’s Most Devastating Oil Spills

Oil spills. Did you even take notice of the story the last time the news reported on one? Sadly, oil spills happen often enough that we may simply accept it as part of life. And if the media doesn’t continue reporting on it, surely the last one isn’t a problem anymore, right?


The news only picks up on the sensational bits and the rest is relegated to environmental magazines or a documentary only a few people click on to view. And if you count all spills that take place during activities like refueling and drilling, as many as thousands of spills take place each year. The extent of a spill will usually be measured in gallons, tonnes or barrels.

So which ones have had the worst impact thus far?

Everything that Happened in Kuwait

1991 was not a good year in Kuwait. There was an oil spill but also oil wells that were set alight on purpose, all because of politics and the Gulf War.

First, the Iraqi military forces were retreating and applying a scorched earth policy. They set oil wells alight and it’s estimated between 600 and 700 wells were burned. The fires were started around January and February but it took until April to extinguish the first ones and until the end of the year for the last well to be capped!

In conjunction with the smoke being sent into the air, the other disaster was the oil spill into the Persian Gulf. Even though Iraq stated they weren’t responsible, strategically, this helped them by stopping the US from doing a water landing to give assistance.

Estimations for the spill range from 252 million to 336 million gallons, which covered an area of 101 by 42 miles and it was five inches thick at certain spots. And in the oil wells, as much as 1 billion barrels of oil burned!

For this disaster there were some clean up efforts, since of course they wanted to recover the spilt oil. But the Gulf War was raging, so projects were hampered and in the end, even though a lot of oil was skimmed off the water’s surface, beaches weren’t as lucky. As much as 375 miles of the coast got affected and wasn’t properly cleared.

Based on the circumstances, some called this disaster environmental terrorism. And as if the war wasn’t enough to affect industries, the spill ruined certain fishing activities forever. Even though coral in the region was less affected than expected, other areas could take decades to recover.

Lakeview Gusher—USA

The Lakeview Gusher was another disaster that played out over a long period of time and it’s the largest accidental spill in history

In 1910, in Kern Country, California, a pressurized oil well erupted. Reasons include a lack of planning and safety measures because the system had no blowout preventers, so 9 million barrels of oil, or 378 million gallons managed to blow out.

To be fair, the Lakeview Oil Company never thought they would come across that amount of oil. They started drilling because they were after the natural gas, but when they reached a depth of 2440 ft, oil blew the well casing and gushed out.

The spill lasted for 18 months and to contain the oil they improvised sand dams and dykes. But the flow increased from around 19,000 to 90,000 barrels a day and it went on for over 540 days. Another solution they implemented was a pipeline carrying the oil to storage tanks but despite these efforts experts say that less than 50% of the oil actually got saved. The rest seeped into the soil or evaporated, having immense environmental impact.

One small piece of good news is that at least, with all that oil exposed, it never caught fire!

Deepwater Horizon—USA

Next on our list is the Deepwater Horizon spill which is the largest marine oil spill ever, and it happened as recently as 2010. To put this spill in numbers, 210 million gallons of oil leaked into the sea.

Here again, the damage was done over the course of an extensive period, with oil escaping into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days before the leak was sealed.

Deepwater Horizon was a drilling rig, chartered to BP at the time. The problem started on 20 April 2010 when methane gas expanded and rose into the rig, then ignited, causing a massive explosion. Although over 90 crew members were rescued, 11 people were never found. 2 days later, the rig sank but then they discovered oil was leaking and didn’t stop until the well was sealed on 19 September 2010.

The area this oil leak had an affect on is about the size of the state of Oklahoma. 70,000mi² was directly impacted and during the next two years problems arose in places as far as Texas, Florida and Alabama.

For this oil spill there were skimming and burning cleanup attempts, with 47,000 people involved to try and contain, disperse or remove oil. Containment booms measured 4.2 million feet long, all to try and limit the effect on areas like marshes and oyster ranches. The initial stage took 7,000 vessels and cost around $850 million. With additional activities it cost $14 billion by January 2013 and only in 2014 did BP report that the coastal cleanup was finished. But still, reports stated that only a quarter of the spilt oil was recovered and the event also released hydrocarbon gas.

Of course BP’s reputation suffered because of the disaster and its impact on marine life and tourism for years to come. BP also faced a lawsuit, with plaintiffs accusing them of negligence and willful misconduct. Five years after the disaster, BP agreed to a settlement of over $18 billion. Taking into account their expenses for the cleanup, penalties and damages, BP had to shell out over $50 billion.

Ixtoc 1—Mexico

Another oil spill that happened at a drilling rig was the Ixtoc 1 oil spill. Ixtoc 1 was an exploratory oil well, being worked on by Pemex, the Mexican state-owned petroleum company. This disaster also took place in the Gulf of Mexico, in June 1979, when a blowout caused oil to spill into the ocean.

A problem with these kinds of spills is how long it takes to fix the problem, mostly because it’s so difficult to work deep under water. Only in July could Pemex reduce that flow of oil by pumping mud into the well. This caused the flow to become 20,000 barrels a day instead of 30 000. In August they placed balls made of steel and lead into the well, which took the flow down to ‘just’ 10,000 barrels a day. Other techniques included drilling relief wells but still it took around 10 months before the leak stopped.

The facts and numbers show the magnitude of this spill. For example, they treated over 1000mi² of ocean with dispersants and this took almost 500 aerial missions. US beach areas along 162 miles of coastline were implicated and the effects were seen as far as Texas, because oil travels wherever the currents take it. Where oil washed onto shore, it was sometimes as much as 1ft deep. The spill also affected Mexico’s fishing industry, with catches for certain species dropping as much as 70%.

Pemex did launch a cleanup and this cost the company around $100 million. But it took it took a decade for some turtle species’ population to show recovery.

Unfortunately, no human or company ever really took responsibility for this disaster. Thanks to ‘sovereign immunity’, Pemex barely paid any compensation claims.

Atlantic Empress—Trinidad & Tobago

Now for story about an oil tanker.

Also in 1979, this oil spill happened when two oil tankers, a Greek ship called the Atlantic Empress and the Caribbean Aegean Captain, collided. The collision was simply because of bad weather and the ships’ inability to maneuver quick enough once they spotted each other. On the ocean, being 600 yards apart was not enough to turn and avoid a collision.

Both ships had damage, fires to contain and even lost crew members. However, while the Aegean Captain could be taken to Curacao to unload the cargo, the Atlantic Empress was leaking her oil into the ocean. And within about two weeks, the Empress sank.

Before she sank, experts did their best to minimize the extent of the spill, such as towing the tanker deeper into the ocean, further from land. But 287,000 tonnes of crude oil ended up in the sea. That’s over 2 million barrels.

This is a sad story both for the loss of human life and the mass of oil that ended up in the Caribbean Sea.

Fergana Valley—Uzbekistan

Next is the Fergana Valley disaster which is the most devastating of oil spills that ever happened in Asia AND it’s the largest inland disaster of its kind.

You may also hear this disaster called the ‘Mingbulak oil spill’, named after the specific oil field based in Fergana Valley. That’s in Uzbekistan.

Blow outs seem to be a common occurrence for these massive disasters and it also happened in Fergana Valley. This one happened at the beginning of March in 1992 and to help contain over 280,000 tonnes of crude oil, they built dykes. They oil flowed until it stopped by itself but unfortunately, unlike the Lakeview Gusher, the oil did catch fire and kept burning for two months.

Nowruz Field Platform—Iran

You can see the numbers for disasters are getting smaller, but a comparatively small spill can still ruin the environment. And imagine if it’s multiple small spills! This happened at Nowruz oil field, with politics and was adding to the problems.

At Nowruz Field in Iran, near the start of the year 1983, first, a tanker hit a platform. This started a spill and as part of attacks during the Iran-Iraq war, in March the same platform gets shot at by helicopters. As luck would have it, the oil catches fire. Similar to what happened in Kuwait, the war affects various activities, so technicians can’t attend to the problem as swiftly as usual. So, it takes until September 1983 to cap the well with cement.

After this, another helicopter attack hit a different platform and another leak ensued. Luckily, this time it only took around two months before the cap is in place but nine guys lose their lives during the process.

As a result of these two major leaks, 260,000 tonnes of oil end up being spilled.

ABT Summer—Angola

The ABT Summer disaster took place just off Angola’s coast and involved a 344m long oil tanker, which sank in 1991. The cause was an explosion aboard the ABT Summer and it cost five people their lives while creating the leak that allowed 260,000 tonnes of oil to escape. If you looked from above you would have seen a stain in the water, 20 miles long and over 4 miles wide.

Now, the numbers can give you an idea of the size and impact of a spill, but like I’ve said, don’t underestimate the damage of lesser events. The following disasters are smaller in numbers but not necessarily in potential environmental impact.

5 Smaller—but Still Devastating—Spills

  • Torrey Canyon was an oil tanker which ran aground on the Cornwall coast, mostly because of human error. Among other things, attempts to limit the spill’s impact included burning the oil by dropping bombs of 1000 pounds each. But since it was at sea, water kept dousing the flames, so the mission used over 160 bombs and over 44,000 litres of kerosene. This disaster involved about 120,000 tonnes of crude oil.
  • Amoco Cadiz is another tanker that ran ashore in 1978, near Brittany in France. Causes included bad weather and mechanical faults. This led to over 220,000 tonnes of oil escaping because there wasn’t enough time to pump any out of the ship before it broke up and sank.
  • Another oil tanker, the Odyssey, sank after an explosion, and dumped more than 132,000 tonnes of its cargo into the seas near Nova Scotia. Because the explosion resulted in fires and the oil slick around the ship was burning, rescue vessels couldn’t come near it and so its entire crew perished. In this case, much of the oil burnt up.
  • After a Taylor Energy oil platform was destroyed during a hurricane, oil started spilling out. This took place in 2004 and it’s still going on. If the leak isn’t tended to it can carry on for a century and Taylor Energy says there isn’t much else that can be done. They’ve already spent $400 million on limiting the flow, which is now a few hundred barrels a day.
  • I end off with a slightly better story, that of the Castillo de Bellver. It’s terrible that it had an explosion and burnt but the slick headed out to ocean and not towards the land, which in this case was South Africa’s Table Bay. This limited its impact to some extent, preventing the expected onshore environmental disaster. Still, the 250,000 tonnes of crude oil created a 58mi² slick and especially gannets from a certain island needed to be rehabilitated.

Is There Any Good News at All?

This all paints a very grim tale but luckily it’s not the end of the story yet. There are passionate people who aim to solve the problems created by oil spills.

Especially after the Deepwater Horizon crisis, the industry has seen many scientific advances that enable scientists and first responders to deal better with any new oil spill. For example, based on the experiences after Deepwater Horizon, there are now better ways to rescue and protect certain marine mammals. Also, with the help of satellite technology, scientists can determine the thickness of the oil after a spill. Where the layer is thickest it’s easier to implement clean ups or containment plans, so it helps simplify the processes, which means more can be done.

Wrap Up

Of course, the best news would be to never see an oil spill on the news again. Unfortunately, with oil being such an important role player in our world today, that is unlikely.

Hopefully, by realizing how humanity impacts the earth at large, we will all become a little more responsible in our day-to-day activities.



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