Oil Pollution

The April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig blowout and the resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has ruined hundreds of fishermen and tourism-dependant businesses in the Gulf; and it has caused and will continue to cause the deaths of many endangered and threatened species, including whales, manatees, birds and sea turtles. More than 600 sea turtles were found dead and an additional 456 were found alive but soiled with oil. More than 4,300 oiled birds have been found, more than half of them dead.  The impact on these species will continue for a long time.  The rig explosion killed 11 workers and spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil.  Much of the spilled oil remains dispersed deep under the sea. Scientists are unsure how this and 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersant will alter the fate of marine creatures and habitats. Long-term effects on the wildlife are unclear at this time.

Oil Spills are releases of petroleum or crude oil into the environment due to human activity.  Studies of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (right) have shown that the environmental damage caused by oil spills can be greater than was previously thought. Petroleum can negatively impact marine life at concentrations as low as one part per billion.  Heavier components of crude oil appear to cause the most damage: they persist in the environment much longer.  A heavy oil spill can also blanket estuaries and shoreline ecosystems such as salt marshes and tidal pools, preventing gas exchange and blocking light.  The oil can mix deeply into pebble, shingle or sandy beaches, where it may remain for months or years.  Fish eggs exposed to small amounts of petroleum compounds can hatch fish with twisted spines and deformed hearts.

Seabirds are severely affected by spills. The oil penetrates and opens up the structure of their plumage, reducing insulating ability, making the birds more vulnerable to temperature fluctuations and much less buoyant in the water.  It also impairs birds' flight abilities, making it difficult or impossible to forage and escape from predators.  As they attempt to preen, birds typically ingest oil that coats their feathers, causing kidney damage, altered liver function, and digestive tract irritation. This and the limited foraging ability quickly cause dehydration and metabolic imbalances. Most birds affected by an oil spill die unless there is human intervention.  Marine mammals exposed to oil spills are affected in similar ways. Oil coats the fur of Sea otters and seals, reducing insulation abilities and leading to body temperature fluctuations and hypothermia. Ingestion of the oil causes dehydration and impaired digestion.

Major oil spills have been happening now for almost 70 years.  One really needs to read through a list of spills, one catastrophe at a time, to comprehend the horror.  When you examine the list, you will see that the Exxon Valdez oil spill was nowhere near the largest spill that has ever happened; but consider the cost of even that relatively modest spill: There were about 2,800 sea otters and 250,000 seabirds killed by the spill.  It took 10,000 workers, 1,000 boats, 100 airplanes, the Navy, Army, and the Air Force to clean it up. It took the Exxon Valdez Company four summers to complete their part of the cleanup.  Exxon spent about $2.1 billion for the clean up.

1985: Dec. 21, Port Angeles Harbor. The Arco Anchorage spilled 239,000 gallons. Damage from the spill is still evident after 26 years.

1990: June 8, off Galveston, Tex.: Mega Borg released 5.1 million gallons of oil some 60 nautical miles south-southeast of Galveston as a result of an explosion and subsequent fire in the pump room.

1991 Jan. 23–27, southern Kuwait: during the Persian Gulf War, Iraq deliberately released 240–460 million gallons of crude oil into the Persian Gulf from tankers 10 mi off Kuwait. Spill had little military significance. On Jan. 27, U.S. warplanes bombed pipe systems to stop the flow of oil.  April 11, Genoa, Italy: Haven spilled 42 million gallons of oil in Genoa port. May 28, Angola: ABT Summer exploded and leaked 15–78 million gallons of oil off the coast of Angola. It's not clear how much sank or burned.

1992 March 2, Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan: 88 million gallons of oil spilled from an oil well.

1993 Aug. 10, Tampa Bay, Fla.: three ships collided, the barge Bouchard B155, the freighter Balsa 37, and the barge Ocean 255. The Bouchard spilled an estimated 336,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil into Tampa Bay.

1994 Sept. 8, Russia: dam built to contain oil burst and spilled oil into Kolva River tributary. U.S. Energy Department estimated spill at 2 million barrels. Russian state-owned oil company claimed spill was only 102,000 barrels.

1996 Feb. 15, off Welsh coast: supertanker Sea Empress ran aground at port of Milford Haven, Wales, spewed out 70,000 tons of crude oil, and created a 25-mile slick.

1999 Dec. 12, French Atlantic coast: Maltese-registered tanker Erika broke apart and sank off Britanny, spilling 3 million gallons of heavy oil into the sea.

2000 Jan. 18, off Rio de Janeiro: ruptured pipeline owned by government oil company, Petrobras, spewed 343,200 gallons of heavy oil into Guanabara Bay.  Nov. 28, Mississippi River south of New Orleans: oil tanker Westchester lost power and ran aground near Port Sulphur, La., dumping 567,000 gallons of crude oil into lower Mississippi. Spill was largest in U.S. waters since Exxon Valdez disaster in March 1989.

2002 Nov. 13, Spain: Prestige suffered a damaged hull and was towed to sea and sank. Much of the 20 million gallons of oil remains underwater.

2003 July 28, Pakistan: The Tasman Spirit, a tanker, ran aground near the Karachi port, and eventually cracked into two pieces. One of its four oil tanks burst open, leaking 28,000 tons of crude oil into the sea.

2004 Dec. 7, Unalaska, Aleutian Islands, Alaska: A major storm pushed the M/V Selendang Ayu up onto a rocky shore, breaking it in two. 337,000 gallons of oil were released, most of which was driven onto the shoreline of Makushin and Skan Bays.

2005 Aug.-Sept., New Orleans, Louisiana: The Coast Guard estimated that more than 7 million gallons of oil were spilled during Hurricane Katrina from various sources, including pipelines, storage tanks and industrial plants.

2006 June 19, Calcasieu River, Louisiana: An estimated 71,000 barrels of waste oil were released from a tank at the CITGO Refinery on the Calcasieu River during a violent rain storm. July 15, Beirut, Lebanon: The Israeli navy bombs the Jieh coast power station, and between three million and ten million gallons of oil leaks into the sea, affecting nearly 100 miles of coastline. A coastal blockade, a result of the war, greatly hampers outside clean-up efforts. August 11th, Guimaras island, The Philippines: A tanker carrying 530,000 gallons of oil sinks off the coast of the Philippines, putting the country's fishing and tourism industries at great risk. The ship sinks in deep water, making it virtually unrecoverable, and it continues to emit oil into the ocean as other nations are called in to assist in the massive clean-up effort.

2007 December 7, South Korea: Oil spill causes environmental disaster, destroying beaches, coating birds and oysters with oil, and driving away tourists with its stench. The Hebei Spirit collides with a steel wire connecting a tug boat and barge five miles off South Korea's west coast, spilling 2.8 million gallons of crude oil. Seven thousand people are trying to clean up 12 miles of oil-coated coast.

2008 July 25, New Orleans, Louisiana: A 61-foot barge, carrying 419,000 gallons of heavy fuel, collides with a 600-foot tanker ship in the Mississippi River near New Orleans. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel leak from the barge, causing a halt to all river traffic while cleanup efforts commence to limit the environmental fallout on local wildlife.

2009 March 11, Queensland, Australia: During Cyclone Hamish, unsecured cargo aboard the container ship MV Pacific Adventurer came loose on deck and caused the release of 52,000 gallons of heavy fuel and 620 tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer, into the Coral Sea. About 60 km of the Sunshine Coast was covered in oil, prompting the closure of half the area's beaches.

2010 Jan. 23, Port Arthur, Texas: The oil tanker Eagle Otome and a barge collide in the Sabine-Neches Waterway, causing the release of about 462,000 gallons of crude oil. Environmental damage was minimal as about 46,000 gallons were recovered and 175,000 gallons were dispersed or evaporated, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.  April 24, Gulf of Mexico: The Deepwater Horizon, a semi-submersible drilling rig, sank on April 22, after an April 20th explosion on the vessel. Eleven people died in the blast. When the rig sank, the riser—the 5,000-foot-long pipe that connects the wellhead to the rig—became detached and began leaking oil. In addition, U.S. Coast Guard investigators discovered a leak in the wellhead itself. As much as 60,000 barrels of oil per day were leaking into the water, threatening wildlife along the Louisiana Coast. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared it a "spill of national significance." BP (British Petroleum), which leased the Deepwater Horizon, is responsible for the cleanup, but the U.S. Navy supplied the company with resources to help contain the slick. Oil reached the Louisiana shore on April 30, affected about 125 miles of coast. By early June, oil had also reached Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. It is the largest oil spill in U.S. history. July 21, 2010 Dalien China: seaport pipeline rupture spills 400,000 gallons.

2011: Jul 3, 2011 Yellowstone River MT: Exxon pipeline rupture spills 42,000 gallons.

Puget Sound, near Seattle is a 100 mile arm of the sea, connected to the rest of the Pacific Ocean by the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  It is habitat for Orca killer whales and giant geoduck clams.  Because most of Puget Sound is enclosed by land, potentially preventing dissipation of spilled petroleum, a major oil spill there would be particularly serious.  The Seattle PI reports that for orcas, a huge spill there –like the 450,000 gallon Tenyo Maru spill off Washington's coast in 1991, or the 11 million gallon Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 -- would be a disaster. The Exxon Valdez spill killed 25 orcas. Only 90 inhabit Puget Sound today. Government scientists say a major oil spill is the biggest extinction threat for Puget Sound orcas over the next half-century.  Even smaller spills irritate orcas' eyes and skin, and contaminate their prey.

Meanwhile, near Alaska in the Arctic ocean, BP plans to involve itself in yet another potentially hazardous oil exploit. Utilizing a high-tech drill from a gravel island in the Beaufort Sea, the company hopes to reach two miles deep, turn and bore another six to eight miles horizontally to eventually tap an oil reservoir in federal waters. The ban on drilling in Arctic waters, brought on by BP’s oil nightmare in the Gulf, stopped Shell’s plans to begin exploratory drilling in Alaska this summer.  However, the moratorium does not apply to BP’s project, which is based from a man-made island and would potentially be drilling directionally into formations under shallow water.  Prospects of drilling for oil in the Arctic ocean have raised particularly daunting concerns regarding oil spills at times when the arctic sea ice is present. It seems that an oil spill under such conditions would be all but impossible to clean up; a fact made all the more distressing when one considers the abundance and variety of marine life in the arctic.

The oil production from Alberta's tar sands produces large volumes of waste in the form of mine tailings (six barrels of tailings per barrel of bitumen crude oil extracted).  This slurry of water, sand, fine clay and residual bitumen– is stored in vast wastewater reservoirs, misleadingly called "tailings ponds." Collectively these pools of waste cover more than 50 km and are so extensive that they can be seen from space. One tailings pond at the mining operation is held in check by the third-largest dam in the world. These tailings dumps leak into the groundwater system and the surrounding soil and surface water.

The Alberta tar sands are found beneath a globally significant boreal forest, a unique mosaic of forest, wetlands and lakes – one-quarter of the world's remaining intact forests, and home to bears, wolves, lynx and the largest population of woodland caribou left in the world.  3,000 km^2 of boreal forest will ultimately be cleared, drained and strip-mined to access tar sands deposits close to the surface. Whether cars burn diesel, biodiesel, gasoline or alcohol, they emit a lot of greenhouse gas: 20 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gas burned. North America's transition to oil from the Alberta tar sands, not only perpetuates, but actually worsens, emissions of greenhouse gas pollution from oil consumption. While the end products from conventional oil and tar sands are the same (mostly transportation fuels), producing a barrel of synthetic crude oil from the tar sands releases up to three times more greenhouse gas pollution than conventional oil.  (This is a result of the huge amount of energy – primarily from burning natural gas – required to generate the heat needed to extract bitumen from the tar sands and upgrade it into synthetic crude. The energy equivalent of one barrel of oil is required to produce just three barrels of oil from the tar sands.) The Canadian government ratified the Kyoto Protocol on global warming in 2002, legally committing to a target of reducing the country's greenhouse gas emission to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. But oil industry lobbying and the rapid growth of tar sands development have undermined Canada’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission. Canada's total emissions have risen 25% since 1990, a pace far exceeding the 16.3% increase in the US. Canadian regulations introduced in early 2007 are so fraught with loopholes and gaps that greenhouse gas pollution from the tar sands is predicted to triple by 2020.

Carcinogenic Oil Refinery Emissions: In a disturbing reversal of a positive trend in earlier years, emissions of carcinogens from U.S. refineries actually went up between 2004 and 2006, according to a new study by the nonprofit and nonpartisan Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). Based on an analysis of Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) emissions data reported by refineries to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the EIP study found that a handful of U.S. refineries accounted for more than a third of the total emissions of carcinogens. EIP concluded that total OSHA carcinogens emitted by U.S. petroleum refineries climbed from 3,090,521 pounds in 2004 to 3,164,460 in 2006, an increase of about 74,000 pounds, or more than 2 percent. Nine of the top 10 refinery sources are either in Texas or Louisiana. (See list below.) The Environmental Integrity Project report also cautions that millions of pounds of carcinogenic formaldehyde and benzene emissions by refineries are likely underreported by the industry. For example, only six of the nation's 150 refineries reported releasing a total of 142,995 pounds of formaldehyde in 2005. But according to EPA methods of estimating emissions, industry-wide emissions could exceed 4 million pounds a year. In addition, new "remote sensing" technologies that directly measure air emissions show that refinery releases of carcinogens can be as much as 100 times higher than industry estimates based on outdated EPA emission factors. The city of Houston filed a petition on July 10, 2008, asking EPA to replace outdated and inaccurate emission factors that are used to estimate refinery emissions with newer and more accurate methods of measurement. Eric Schaeffer, director, Environmental Integrity Project, said: "Petroleum refineries are a major source of air pollution, and it's disturbing to see so little progress made in reducing emissions of carcinogens. Also, the evidence continues to mount that this toxic pollution is grossly underestimated, or not reported at all. In this case, what you don't know can hurt you, since most refineries are within breathing distance of where people live, work, and go to school." "This report and the work EIP is doing is invaluable to refinery communities," said Kathy Andria, president of American Bottom Conservancy, which is based in downstate Illinois where the ConocoPhillips Wood River refinery is located. "We have very high rates of cancer and heart and lung disease here, so we are alarmed that toxic emissions from refineries can be 100 times higher than what is being reported. We are fortunate, though, that with EIP's help we negotiated an agreement that will require ConocoPhillips to use the cutting-edge DIAL laser monitoring technology discussed in the report. That should result in accurate monitoring and reduced emissions that will benefit not only citizens, but the company, as well." "It's shocking that these numbers actually increased during this two-year period," said Matthew Tejada, director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention (GHASP). "The lack of significant progress and now an actual reported increase in emissions totally negates any excuse not to do everything in our power to reduce industrial emissions. We need to use every available tool, including new measuring and monitoring technologies, to get at the real source of these emissions and get these pollutants out of the air we breathe."

The top ten largest emitters, in total emissions of carcinogens reported in 2006 are:  

1. BP: Texas City, TX (pic left)
2. Exxon Mobil: Baytown, TX
3. Citgo: Lake Charles, LA
4. Houston Refining Co.: Houston, TX
5. Flint Hills Res: Corpus Christi, TX
6. Motiva: Port Arthur, TX
7. Chalmette Refining: Chalmette, LA
8. Conoco Phillips: Sweeny, TX
9. Conoco Phillips: Roxana, IL
10. Valero: Corpus Christi, TX

As the EIP report notes: "These 10 refineries account for 16 percent of the total refining capacity in the U.S., but emit 36 percent of the OSHA carcinogens." EIP's report found that the biggest polluters are not always the largest refineries. Some facilities emit much more carcinogens per barrel of oil produced than others. Interestingly, Texas refineries report more than eight times more carcinogens emitted per barrel of oil than California refineries. according to the report. Three refineries that report the highest total releases of OSHA carcinogens (BP Texas City, Chalmette Refining, and Valero in Corpus Christi) are also three of the ten worst emitters of OSHA Carcinogens per barrel of oil. BP reported emitting 181,352 lbs of OSHA Carcinogens from their Texas City refinery in 2006. With a refinery capacity of 205,000 barrels of oil per calendar day, BP emits 2.40 lbs of OSHA Carcinogens per 1,000 barrels of oil. This is 4.6 times more than the national average and 240 times more than the best U.S. refineries, which emit only .005 lbs of OSHA carcinogens per 1,000 barrels of oil. Emissions seem particularly bad at refineries owned by companies that have recently reported record profits.  For example, BP reported a 63 percent profit increase of 7.62 BILLION dollars for the first quarter of 2008.  And it is particularly interesting to note that on March 23, 2005, Texas City suffered an explosion (at this same “carcinogenic record-breaking” BP oil refinery) which killed 15 and injured over 100. The BP facility in Texas City is the United States' third largest oil refinery, employing over 2,000 people and processing 460,000 barrels (73,000 m³) of crude oil each day.  BP in the last five years has managed to set industrial records for profits, industrial accidents, release of carcinogens, and oil spills.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that flouting common sense as well as the law, the Environmental Protection Agency on August 23, 2007 announced a proposed rule concluding that tens of thousands of tons of toxic air emissions from U.S. oil refineries are not risky enough to warrant any additional safeguards for the breathing public.  If it stands, the decision will impose a significant cancer risk on nearly half a million Americans. “The EPA is officially proposing to ignore acknowledged risk levels that are 70 times higher than allowed by law,” said John Walke, a senior attorney and the Clean Air Program director at NRDC. “Nearly one in three Americans lives within 30 miles of a refinery. This ruling subjects the public to increased cancer risks and other chronic health hazards. Oil companies have the technology and the resources to fix this problem, but EPA wants to let them off the hook.”   EPA’s decision addresses the Clean Air Act obligation to respond to any public health risks remaining from oil refineries’ toxic air pollution, following the agency’s adoption of technology control standards in 1995.  Congress recognized that after pollution control technologies are applied, pollution coming from these facilities might still pose unacceptable health risks to the public.  Thus, in 1990, Congress instructed EPA to examine the remaining or “residual” risk from all toxic pollution sources. The agency was supposed to determine whether the first-generation technology standards reduced lifetime cancer risks to the public from toxic pollution to less than one in one million. If cancer risk exceeds one in one million, EPA must require better control measures to protect the public by reducing risks to below one in one million. However, while many oncologists will likely disagree, EPA now asserts that the appropriate threshold for action is not one in one million, but one hundred in one million. And because the agency finds present toxic emissions from oil refineries to pose cancer risks of seventy in one million, EPA indicates its preferred approach is to do nothing about these cancer risks and to require no additional pollution controls at oil refineries.

Carcinogenic Auto Emissions:  Pollution by cars causes lung cancer, respiratory problems, urban smog, and acid rain. The first federal Clean Air Act was passed during the Nixon Administration to curtail the ever-increasing amount of pollution caused by automobiles and industry, and Congress passed an updated version in 1990. However, the Clean Air Act didn't prohibit pollution; it simply defined an "acceptable" amount. Further, the legislation addressed only certain airborne contaminants, while ignoring others. Perhaps most significantly, although bad air was outlawed, it still exists. More than half of the people in the U.S. live in areas that fail to meet federal air quality standards at least several days a year, and around 80 million Americans live in areas that continually fail to meet these standards. Despite the Clean Air Acts, the reality is that air pollution continues to be a major public health problem.

As bad as the air is in the U.S., in other countries – which have waited too long to address the pollution caused by cars – it's worse. Mexico City, São Paulo, New Delhi, Beijing and Bangkok are grappling with serious air problems. And much of that pollution is caused by private automobiles.

One way cars create pollution is by contributing to the amount of ground-level ozone (not to be confused with the atmospheric ozone layer). In the atmosphere, the ozone layer shields the planet from harmful ultraviolet radiation rays. But on the ground, ozone is another matter, causing hazy smog and respiratory problems. Most ozone pollution is caused by motor vehicles, which account for 72% of nitrogen oxides and 52% of reactive hydrocarbons (principal components of the photochemical smog that produces the ozone). The seriousness of ground-level ozone should not be underestimated. According to the World Resources Institute, Ozone pollution has become widespread –in cities in Europe, North America, China and Japan– as auto and industrial emissions have increased. Breathing ozone concentrations of 0.012 ppm – levels typical in many cities – can irritate the respiratory tract and impair lung function, causing coughing, shortness of breath, and chest pain.  Evidence also suggests ozone exposure lowers the body's defenses, increasing susceptibility to respiratory infections.  The effects on human health are unsettling.  A study of U.S. cities found that mortality rates were 17-26% higher in cities with the dirtiest air compared to those with the cleanest air.

The study also found correlations between bad air and lung cancer and cardiopulmonary disease.  The risks translate to a two-year shorter life span for residents of dirty-air cities. On a global basis, estimates of mortality due to outdoor air pollution range from 0.4% to 1.1% of total annual deaths. In the U.S., 30,000 people die every year from automobile emissions.