• Carol Jin

Oil Spills… They're The Wrong Kind Of Slick

BEFORE WE BEGIN: U-Turn The Earth will be welcoming another pop-up writer to the team! Check out Nicole Vuong’s introduction in our updated About page and look forward to her article next week about slash-and-burn agriculture! Hope you enjoy this week’s article and I hope you don’t mind our new font!


Some people say, “spill the beans” when they want someone else to disclose new or secret information. Others say, “spill the tea” to hear the latest entertaining gossip. But spilling oil? This is a serious environmental hazard that deserves more awareness, so in this week’s article I will be discussing statistics that demonstrate the severity of oil pollution, how oil contamination harms wildlife, and some existing processes that limit the spread of this sinister, slick substance.

Quantifying Modern Oil Pollution

I will begin by acknowledging that in reality, around half of the oil entering our oceans every year is produced without human intervention by naturally seeping up through fractures in seafloor rock as crude/unprocessed petroleum [1]. However, this rate of “oil seeping” is gradual enough to allow ecosystems to adapt. Oil spills that result from leaking oil-transport ships (tankers), petroleum drilling, or torn pipelines, on the other hand, can overwhelm marine ecosystems and disrupt environmental harmony. Here are some numbers related to man-made oil spills:

  • Sadly, the largest oil spill in history was intentional. Iraqi forces released over 240 million (240,000,000!) gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf to slow down American troops’ advances during the Gulf War of 1991 [2].

  • The largest accidental spill occurred in 2010 when an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig continuously pumped oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 straight days. Even after this “BP Oil Spill” was stopped, 210 million gallons of oil had already contaminated the Gulf region [3].

  • The BP Oil Spill alone has harmed/taken the lives of about 82,000 birds, 6,100 sea turtles, and 26,000 marine mammals (dolphins+whales) [4]. This may not be representative of how oil spills normally affect wildlife because BP is such a huge incident, but BP definitely illustrates the extent that oil can harm marine ecosystems.

  • Oil is usually one huge general category, so you may not know that there are actually 5 different types of oil (non-persistent light, persistent light, medium, heavy, sinking). None of these types are “better” than the others because there are unique challenges that each one presents. For example, while non-persistent light oils are difficult to clean up due to high flammability and strong toxin concentrations, sinking oils are easier to remove BUT they sink to the bottom of rivers/oceans and thus severely harm sedentary aquatic life such as mussels [4]. 

The Effects of Oil Spills on Wildlife

The above numbers describe the large extent of oil spills, but barely explain the environmental harm they bring. Here’s exactly how oil contamination devastates our ecosystems, especially marine ones [6].

  • Disrupted Insulation: Birds and marine mammals like sea otters depend on their feathers/fur to keep them warm while they swim in such cold waters. But when their outer coverings are coated in oil, these animals cannot insulate themselves properly anymore, leading many to die of hypothermia.

  • Physically Living In Oil Has Consequences: Being covered in oil makes it difficult for aquatic birds to fly and almost impossible for surface-level fish to breathe through such thick sludge. Even bottom-dwelling fish are at risk of developing liver disease and reproductive/growth problems due to oil pollution.

  • Blocked Photosynthesis: A sheen layer of oil floating on water’s surface will physically block sunlight from reaching underwater ecosystems, thus preventing marine plants from conducting photosynthesis and potentially killing these plants, which would wipe ecosystems out from the very bottom.

  • Threat to Biodiversity: Crucial biodiversity hotspots such as coral reefs, mangroves, and marshes are especially sensitive to oil contamination, more so than sandy beaches. We should protect these rich reservoirs of life!

Current Oil Cleanup Methods

On our side, all that we can realistically do to limit our contribution to oil pollution would be to immediately repair vehicles’ gas leakages (gasoline can run off into sewer systems that lead to the ocean) and minimize the volume of cooking oil that we pour down our drains (wastewater facilities have the capacity to remove oil and grease from water before releasing it out into the ocean, but we can still definitely help them out!). There are, however, a couple of cool ways that we currently clean up oil spills [7]:

  • Bioremediation: Certain bacteria, fungi, archaea, and algae can actually consume petroleum products and then metabolize them into non-toxic molecules such as fatty acids and carbon dioxide! Releasing these microorganisms into an oil spill is one possible way we can clean up the pollution that plagues our oceans, although it’s one of the slower processes (it may take years to fully clean one spill solely using bioremediation).

  • Booms and Skimmers: If time is of the essence, then cleanup agencies may reject bioremediation and instead, choose to use booms and skimmers. Booms are floating devices that contain a spill’s perimeter by “fencing in” surface-level oil. Once the oil is secured into one area by the booms, skimmers go in and act like a vaccuum cleaner, sucking up the floating oil to become processed for re-use. This method is only effective for treating relatively new, dense spills and is inefficient when dealing with thinly spread areas of oil.

  • Dispersants: If an oil spill has spread out too widely to be recovered with booms and skimmers, then we might as well accelerate oil’s breakdown and make it easier to bioremediate. The downside of this method, however, is that breaking down oil without microorganisms makes it easier for other marine life to consume the dispersed oil, posing a danger to their health, not to mention that the dispersants themselves often contain toxic chemicals.

  • Burning In-Situ: While this is definitely not the best practice, igniting surface-level oil and burning it off of ocean waters can remove up to 98% of an oil spill, which means that this method is super effective. However, the toxic fumes that the liquid gas converts into can also threaten environmental health, so burning in-situ is a give-and-take solution.

Floating Booms

Thank you for reading! With our help, the world can make a U-Turn for the better. A special thanks to Chris Gudmundsen for suggesting that U-TTE cover this topic! You can make your own topic requests by filling out our Contact form (you can find it on our homepage's menu). We would love to talk about what inspires your environmental awareness! 

Note: Bracketed numbers next to certain texts (e.g. [1], [2], etc.) indicate that the aforementioned information in the article is derived from the corresponding source in the References below.


[1] What is an oil seep? US Department of Commerce | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2016, October 20).

[2] Castellani, M. The Gulf War Oil Spill: A Man-made Disaster.

[3] 10 Worst Oil Spills in World History. Cleaner Seas. (2015, June 16).

[4] Disaster A CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY REPORTA Deadly Toll: The Gulf Oil Spill and the Unfolding Wildlife Disaster. CiteSeerX. summary?doi=

[5] Oil Types. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2020, February 24).

[6] Hancock, N. (2016, December 15). Oil Spills. Safe Drinking Water Foundation.

[7] 9 Methods for Oil Spill Cleanup at Sea. Marine Insight. (2020, January 3).


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