Oil spills come in a variety of types and severities. While no one wants to see an oil spill happen, the reality is that they do, and in large numbers. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency, in testimony about oil spill prevention, stated that “approximately 20,000 oil spills are reported each year to the federal government” (click here for the EPA testimony). These spills range in size from a few gallons leaking out of a small boat or sunken ship to millions of gallons from huge tankers or ruptured pipelines. While the majority of oil released into water arises from anthropogenic sources, there are also natural oil seeps that can release thousands of gallons into the ocean.
Two of the larger spills in U.S. waters were the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska and the 2010 Deep Water Horizon offshore platform well-head blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Both spills were major environmental disasters, but they didn't behave in the same way. Factors such as geographic location, currents, the weight of the oil, and the temperature of the water impacted the ways in which the released oil interacted with the local environment and the clean-up operations.
Differences between Two Oil Spills in US Waters:
The list above is not exhaustive. Other facts affecting the possible behavior and impacts of an oil spill include climate, remoteness, native wildlife, and human proximity. While some spills are the result of negligent or deliberate actions, the majority of them are the result of accidents. We need to prepare for these accidents so that a quick and coordinated response effectively mitigates the potential impacts on the environment and society.
PHOTO CREDIT: US Navy: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Exxon_Valdez_Cleanup.jpg Oil spill cleanup from Exxon Valdez, May 1989.
Oil spills are common. Some are large, like the spills of Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon, but others are small and easily contained. Preparation for oil spills needs to take into consideration the large number of variables that will affect how the oil will interact with the environment in which it is spilled.