Every ecosystem on the planet faces environmental challenges, and the ocean is no exception.
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Between changes in acidity, biodiversity loss, and pollution, there are endless examples of the ways that climate change and human activity have negatively impacted oceans. Oil spills are one of the most serious issues currently affecting these ecosystems.
Managing oil spills is tricky, but it comes down to two goals: prevention and clean up. The data shows that prevention has improved dramatically, with oil released into the ocean reducing from 320,00 tonnes in the 1970s to less than 9,000 tonnes in the 2020s. This was achieved through technological improvement and enhanced by public awareness from the Deepwater Horizon accident, where eleven human lives were lost and 4 million barrels of oil were released during a period of 87 days. This tragic accident was the largest oil spill to be caused by marine drilling operations and led to considerable change in the last decade.
Environmentally, in the short-term perspective, many individual ecosystems and species are harmed by oil spills. Heavier oil can kill animals by stopping their basic functions, such as respiration. This has especially been portrayed in the media with penguins. The release of oil can also leave lasting chemical effects. The toxic components of oils can have sub-lethal or lethal effects on animals and can work their way up the food chain to reach us, humans. However, in a more long-term perspective, marine ecosystems are quite resilient and able to withstand change from such events. The most critical element of controlling spills is to mitigate their impact so that ecosystems can recover faster.
Goal 1: Prevention
Prevention of oil spills requires continuous improvement and assessment of the production chain, from storage and transportation to sales. Some recent advancements include the automatization of tasks so that there is little room for human error, with backup safety systems. The implementation of automatic systems has allowed for better detection of vulnerabilities in the value chain. Those systems have transformed oil production to be proactive in their management of possible oil spills. Technological improvements were key in reducing the total spills, but many industry experts still encourage R&D to mitigate the effects of future accidents.
Goal 2: Clean-up
Cleaning up oil spills efficiently is more than needed, as the faster it can be cleaned, the less negative environmental impact it will have. Experts argue for innovations, as surprisingly “little has changed in how oil spills are cleaned up” in the past 50 years. Another shock is that we, as humans, do not even clean up our messes. Indeed, only a small part of the oil spills is cleaned up by human efforst, while the rest washes away naturally. The OHM sponge is one of those new solutions that could change the game. It sucks up oil up to 30 times its body weight. Also, the oil recovered by the sponge can be re-used for commercial purposes, lowering the profit loss. Another innovation to efficiently clean up spills is through mats made with human hair. Previous mats used for cleaning up were made of plastic, which furthered the need for oil. Hair mats are environmentally friendly and have been implemented in cleaning up by a San Francisco startup.
Cleaning spills can be costly for local economies and governments. A 2012 study in Canada estimated a medium-sized oil spill to cost CA$2.4 billion to clean up - a rather steep price tag. While the “spiller” company does pay the cost, the liability rules cap the spending, meaning that approximately half of the cost falls into the hands of the government. This, however, depends on the legislation of countries and who the court of justice deems liable. What is important to note is that oil spills impact everyone, from local fishermen who cannot fish for long periods of time, to large governments.
In light of the endless ways that oil spills impact every stakeholder in society, solutions must be implemented. There have been efforts in prevention and cleaning up that have proven effective, but as oil spills still occur, there should be continuous research to develop new solutions. Since the 1970s, we, as humans, are on the right road to mitigate oil spills, but we have not yet achieved our goals.