Thousands and thousands of people in both the private sector and the government train each year to prevent and mitigate oil spills. Oil spills can result in serious environmental consequences, but the policies and technologies that help stop oil spills are becoming more advanced every year. Thanks to the experience scientists and engineers gained in the rapid response to the Exxon-Valdez and Deepwater Horizon spills and other adverse events, companies now have many resources at their disposal for controlling environmental impact and removing pollutants quickly.
Businesses and local governments have never been better prepared to respond to oil spills than they are today. One of the most important milestones that led to this high state of readiness was the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This act was signed by President George H.W. Bush and stated that each oil company must have plans to prevent and contain oil spills. Over the past two decades, these plans have developed into detailed strategies that tell specialists what steps to take in every oil spill contingency and how to communicate with local authorities.
With the requirements of the Oil Pollution Act in mind, companies now take a proactive approach to dealing with oil spills. The oil industry works with government researchers and local authorities to develop and maintain Environmental Sensitivity Index maps. These specialized maps help identify coastal resources that may be endangered by an oil spill. Companies use ESI maps to plan out their operations and triage the response in the event of a spill. This allows them to focus attention on the activities most likely to be of greatest help.
Fully evaluating the nature and cause of an oil spill is the first step in controlling it. Spills should be classified based on their volume, the area affected, and the complexity of cleanup. Evaluation can coincide with early steps to contain the spill. Containing a spill requires specialists to locate the source of the leak and make the necessary repairs. Once a spill is no longer active, it becomes possible to develop a detailed strategy for cleaning it up and reducing any long-term impacts that might be felt by local residents, wildlife, and the biosphere.
Any oil spill in progress should be considered an emergency area. Those who are not directly involved in the control or mitigation of the spill should leave the area immediately. Both oil and the chemical dispersants that are often used to remove it can cause health consequences for people directly exposed for prolonged periods of time. If you suspect an oil spill, leave right away and notify authorities. Coastal areas that may be affected by an oil spill should be evacuated as quickly as possible in order to control any illness or injury that might result.
Oil spill cleanup can involve a wide variety of different approaches. In the recent Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, for example, the cleanup strategy relied heavily on aggressive use of chemical agents that break down oil into its constituent parts and safely dissolve them. In the past, cleanup crews have also used manual methods such as skimming the spilled oil directly from the surface of the water. Likewise, everyone is familiar with the image of volunteers cleaning up oiled sea birds and other animals in the wake of an oil spill.
Cleanup crews work with local authorities and with environmental experts to reduce oil spill impact whenever possible. Using ESI maps, experts can identify the animal populations that are in danger right away. It may sometimes be possible to evacuate animals as well as people and to shift the response toward methods that will mitigate harm to animal habitats. In many cases, nonprofit organizations with specialized insight are soon able to take over from oil companies in the long-term care of affected habitats. This helps restore natural balance.
Thanks to advances in offshore oil rigs and general drilling technology, oil spills are much less likely than they were in the past. Oil rig personnel work shorter shifts than they once did and are trained very rigorously on safety expectations. Maintenance requirements for oil rigs are higher than they were in previous decades, and older rigs and ships are regularly decommissioned. Likewise, there are now new tools that can proactively detect the conditions that could cause an oil spill and alert personnel to the necessary response. Because of growing cooperation between experts at all levels, extraction of oil continues to become safer with each passing year.
To learn more about preventing and controlling oil spills, please visit the following resources:
- Understanding Oil Spills and Oil Spill Response
- Oil Spill Recovery Information
- Oil Spill Response Field Manual (PDF)
- Innovative New Idea for Oil Spill Cleanup Response
- Best Practices for Migratory Bird Care During Oil Spills (PDF)
- Magnetic Separation of Oil and Water During Oil Spills
- How Coral Research Can Improve Oil Spill Recovery
- Field Guide for Responding to Oil Spills in Fast Currents (PDF)
- Overview and Research Resources for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
- Lessons Learned from Deepwater Horizon for Future Oil Spills
- Oil Spill Response Research
- Oil Spill Preparation and Response