An Oily Situation
2017, High School, Prose
I turned on the television to my local news station, expecting to see a panorama of the sun setting on the city of Boston; the description of a local robbery of some kind; or, the weather report for my hometown, Brookline, Massachusetts. Instead, the screen panned out to a sea turned brown, animals covered in a slick mess, and beaches with black splotches of a certain substance. However, the innocence of this estuarine habitat was lost on that very day. “Deepwater Horizon” flashed across the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. It was 2010, and I was 10 years old.
Scilly Isles, U.K. Gulf of Oman. Nova Scotia, Canada. Genoa, Italy. Kolva River, Russia. Trinidad and Tobago. Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico. Gulf of Mexico. Prince William Sound, Alaska. What do all of these places have in common? A recent oil spill has occurred in all of these locations and many others.
In the past 35 years, an epidemic has been spreading across the globe: the great need for oil. Oil has various uses ranging from transportation fuels for vehicles to ink, self-care products and even some medications, such as antihistamines (“Use of Oil”). In developing nations, oil has become a necessity of our consumer diet and without it, our lives would be entirely different. Although the methods of oil obtainment have changed throughout the decades, the numbers and extent of oil catastrophes have hardly changed.
Oil is a type of fossil fuel that was created hundreds of millions of years ago from dead biomass in the form of plankton, along with heat and pressure throughout time. Although it has many forms, oil is most often found deep in the ground and requires wells for it to be sequestered. Crude oil is a mixture of hydrocarbons, long groups of hydrogens and carbons, and other chemicals that can be extremely harmful to ecosystems if it enters the environment (Castro and Huber 2013). Because the components of oil are insoluble, it is very persistent in water bodies (Castro and Huber 2013). Oil is leaked constantly and consistently from the various deep- and ultra-deep water wells at around 0.6 million to 3.1 million pounds per year, and an additional source of oil into benthic habitats is from natural oil seeps along the ocean floor (Friedland and Relyea 2012). Most damaging to the environment, however, are oil spills, which can occur for a number of reasons ranging from the running aground of boats (in earlier times) to the improper design and subsequent ruin of deep water oil rigs (Bourne 2010).
While oil was first discovered in the 1800s, it wasn’t until the 20th century that it became the most commonly used form of energy. As its popularity increased, so did its risks. In the mid- to late- 1900s, the news of devastating oil spills seeped across the nation. The concern of American citizens was only intensified by the oil spill of the Exxon in Prince William Sound, Alaska (1989). In response to this catastrophe, the United States government introduced a new law: The Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This Act requires double hull on ships and also mandates that all oil companies contribute to a trust fund that can be used in case of an oil disaster for remediation (Friedland and Relyea 2012). This law has been effective to a certain extent. For example, we can thank this Act for the decrease in oil spills caused by oil tankers, but as we rely more and more on oil wells in the ocean, a new problem arises: the deep water rig oil spill, an extremely dangerous issue that is unfortunately not addressed in any U.S. government regulation.
While there are many tactics known to treat and improve conditions after oil spills, many of these techniques are outdated and generally more destructive than helpful. To remediate oil spills, companies often spray a special type of fertilizer on rocky shorelines to increase microbial action and breakdown of oil (Castro and Huber 2013). In addition, high-pressure water is jetted onto the coastal areas near oil spills to break up oil compounds and disperse them throughout the region in an attempt to detoxify or decrease the toxicity of the land. However, this tactic is extremely harmful to the environment. Some scientists even argue that this action is more dangerous than leaving the oil to persist on shorelines because of the excessive use of clean water and the havoc it can wreak on coastal ecosystems, displacing and/or causing physical harm to many organisms (Bourne 2010). Equally destructive is the technique of removing heavily oiled plants from shoreline ecosystems, as this removes a concentrated habitat and food source for other critters (Bourne 2010). Organisms such as birds and mammals can be cleaned by hand with clean water, but nothing can protect them from the harm of oil intake or future contact with oil-polluted areas.
Oiled waters can be treated in a number of ways. First, surface oil can be restrained by hydrophobic containment booms that attract oil molecules and subsequently sucked up by vacuum-containing vessels. However, these booms have been shown to be less than 10 percent effective in rough waters. Furthermore, the materials needed to produce these plastic booms is extremely energy-intensive and destructive to the environment, making containment booms a concerning primary choice for oil spill remediation in the open ocean (Friedland and Relyea 2012). Second, another common remediation tactic is the application of chemicals (called dispersants) to break up oils and diminish their persistent qualities. Yet, these chemicals can have the unintended effect of being toxic to marine life, a major concern for the ecosystem’s overall health (Friedland and Relyea 2012). Third, a newer technique that has been adopted is that of burning off oil from the surface of infected water bodies. The plumes of smoke caused by the usage of this technique negatively affects air quality and the efficiency and health of photosynthetic organisms. In addition, burning the oil and any surface-dwelling biomass will eventually lead to hypoxic, or low oxygen, water conditions, which can mean deaths in primary-producer populations, especially in plankton (Bourne 2010). While it is typical for a number of these techniques to be used in the remediation of ecosystems post-oil spills, it is obvious that all of these techniques have their downfalls and dire consequences for affected ecosystems. If we want to effectively remediate oil pollution, we need to create new cleanup alternatives, especially given the fast pace at which oil sequestration has increased in the past number of years. Our cleanup efforts need to be as new, efficient, and technologically advanced as our sequestration methods. Unfortunately, our remediation techniques have been existent for decades with little change.
However, there are some newer technologies that may offer hope in terms of oil remediation. For example, scientists have recently discovered a rare type of bacteria that consumes oil as their energy source instead of other types of biomass. Experts say that within a number of years they will be able to genetically engineer the traits of this bacteria into more common bacteria that are pre-existent in areas of oil spills (Friedland and Relyea 2012). Also, this technique also has it cons, such as its economics; innovation is nevertheless key in creating new remediation techniques that will better serve ecosystems, especially in terms of the acute effects of oil on marine and coastal populations.
The short-term effects of ecosystems can be seen in a number of case studies. In both the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Prestige oil spill of Galicia, Spain, there were great population decreases in many native species, including sea otters, harbor seals and seabirds; and hake, four-spot megrim, Norway lobster, and Pandalid shrimp, respectively (Peterson et al. 2003 and Sánchez et. al. 2006). These die-offs occurred due a variety of reasons. Benthic habitat dwellers organisms faced high concentrations of the toxic chemical PAHs, a compound that is released into the environment as crude oil decomposes. Because of the properties of benthic soils, including its density, the PAHs and other dangerous compounds persist there (Sánchez et. al. 2006). Also, organisms can died of: hypothermia, smothering, drowning and ingestion of toxic hydrocarbons (Peterson et al. 2003). Furthermore, food chains are affected by the deaths of key species that support the health and stability of ecosystems by keeping population sizes in check (Sánchez et. al. 2006). For example, as sea otter populations fall due to the persistence of oil in certain habitats, sea urchin and other invertebrate populations grow with the loss of their predator. Sea urchins, which feed on primary producers, lead to the decline of kelp forests, further degrading the habitat and affecting other species. Losing a “keystone species” in the form of sea otters completely altered the coastal food web in Alaska following the Exxon Valdez oil spill (Peterson et al. 2003).
In addition to losing a keystone species in an ecosystem, there are various other long-term effects that can be had on animal populations. For example, chronic exposure of organisms (such as fish, sea otters, and sea ducks near the Exxon Valdez oil spill) to heightened oil levels in waters “enhanced their mortality rates for years” (Peterson et al.2003). Also, in Alaska, the recovery time and percentage of many organisms was under-approximated by scientists hired by the ExxonMobil oil company (Peterson et al. 2003). This means that organisms took longer to recover, and their recovery was more limited than expected. Similar events have also happened with other oil companies’ scientists in other locations. In addition, the average body mass of many organisms in habitats affected by oil spills decreased (Peterson et al. 2003). This makes that particular species more susceptible to predation and also risks the health of the entire ecosystem because of the effects of increased predation. In all habitats, the fry of marine organisms fell prey to the negative consequences of oil pollution, with most larvae stocks decreasing significantly (Peterson et al. 2003). This changes the species’ age diagram, as well as population sizes, which can eventually affect the stability of an ecosystem as a whole. As the rate and intensity at which oil spills occur increases, we will begin to see these effects spread across the globe, and we will notice how oil pollution truly influences ecosystem health, populations, and stability.
Oil pollution in all of its forms needs to be stopped. The two forms of oil pollution that need to be focused on today are: large-scale oil spills and the constant leaking of oil from deep-sea oil vents. While deep-sea oil vents increase oil concentrations in the water, benthic habitats worldwide are used to this form of oil pollution and can deal with it accordingly. However, unnatural forms of oil pollution pose more of a problem. First, we need to acknowledge the fact that oil is leaked on a daily basis from the various deep- and ultra-deep water wells at around 0.6 million to 3.1 million pounds per year (Friedland and Relyea 2012). This is very concerning, especially because remediation efforts are only enacted in response to large-scale oil spills. Yet, the compounding effects of the constant leakage could be considered equally if not more concerning. The government needs to encourage oil companies to both build more effective wells (that will leak less oil) and to fix existing, leaky wells. The only plausible way that legislation of this sort could be passed would be to conduct more research on deep- and ultra-deep water wells, and use such data to influence a change in the way we use and perform oil drilling and welling today. Second, we need to improve of knowledge of the effects of oil pollution and educate others about this topic.
Currently, there is only limited research regarding oil pollution, and all of such research is strictly about its short-term effects (Peterson et al. 2003). For example, in risk assessment models, only the resulting short-term consequences are considered. Food webs have to be used to estimate the full impact of oil on the community, starting with certain organisms and affecting others as well (Sánchez et. al. 2006). The most important things to be considered are long-term effects on entire ecosystems (because these effects can be more perilous) and all types of effects on benthic organisms, where the oil aggregates and can more easily bioaccumulate in one critter and biomagnify up the food chain. Furthermore, the interconnectedness of species has currently gone unnoticed by most researchers of oil pollution, oil companies, and their scientists (Fleeger et. al. 2003). For example, current oil pollution research does not account for the subsequent effects after one species population declines (these effects include varied levels in predation, reproduction, etc.). Instead, they view each species as an individual as opposed to a part of a community, a key mistake, for this is utterly incorrect. Specifically, “Indirect effects [of oil pollution] are anecdotal because relatively few experiments have been specifically designed to test for them. Future ecotoxicology experiments should be designed to explicitly differentiate between them and other types of indirect effects” (Fleeger et. al. 2003). The way to make this change would be to increase funding into research of water pollution (Whitehead 2013). Instead of syphoning money solely into marine rehabilitation and remediation, we can instead split those funds and donate a portion to marine research on the current effects of oils spills, as well as mitigation and prevention strategies (Paine et. al. 1996).
In addition, some of even our short-term research of oil spills is shaky. For example, in many past research scenarios, scientists noted problems with the set-up, including a low replication of samples, faulty control set-ups, and difficulties in separating correlation from causation (Paine et. al. 1996). Funds need to support the training and enforcement of proper oil spill remediation techniques and research action plans.
Furthermore, there needs to be regulations in terms of the cleanup efforts following large-scale oil spills. In most regions, the oil company responsible for the spill has the power to take over remediation efforts, using “scientists” whom they choose without any oversight. This happened after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, when Exxon began to manage oil remediation efforts. But, their action plan may not have been the best or most effective in the long-term. In order to avoid this scenario repeating itself, laws should be enacted that specify the acceptable remediation tactics of any oil spill, and the government should take back into its power the absolute ability to plan, organize, and enforce such tactics. In making such a law, the wording of the regulation(s) must be strong and not subjective. This has been a problem with previous remediation regulations. For example, in one regulation, it demands that remediation be continued until some sort of “recovery” can be scientifically noted. While “recovery” is defined as the restabilization of a healthy community to the oil company Exxon, it means something entirely different to government officials, who argue for a return to pre-spill conditions. Any new regulations (in general and specifically with the issue of oil pollution) need to be worded to perfection with little allowance for caveats. In addition, it would be extremely beneficial if we altered the language of our existing legislation. In order to guarantee a more stable biological community even after tragedies such as oil leaks and spills, we need to enact change today, beginning with our local and federal governments.
“Now, why should we care about this ‘Deepwater Horizon’ oil spill again?” the news reporter asks of a guest speaker on May 1, 2010, as an image pans out to a fishless, brown sea. No more fishing. No more vacationers. No more seasonal community members. The economy shattered. The animals left to die.
“Because of the animals,” he says. “They are one of us, just like you and me. Due to oil spills like this one, animal communities are suffering. We–the animals’ brothers and sisters–are the cause of our suffering, so we have to do something to change that or at least help remedy the situation in the short-term. We have to care about one another. We have to care about the animals.”
Bourne, Joel K. “Gulf Oil Spill.” National Geographic 218.4 (2010): 28-76. Print.
Fleeger, John W., Kevin R. Carman, and Roger M. Nisbet. “Indirect Effects of Contaminants in Aquatic Ecosystems.” Science of The Total Environment 317.1-3 (2003): 207-33. Web.
Friedland, Andrew J., Rick Relyea, David Courard-Hauri. Environmental Science for AP*. New York: W.H. Freeman, 2015. Print.
Paine, R. T., Jennifer L. Ruesink, Adrian Sun, Elaine L. Soulanille, Marjorie J. Wonham, Christopher D. G. Harley, Daniel R. Brumbaugh, and David L. Secord. “TROUBLE ON OILED WATERS: Lessons from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 27.1 (1996): 197-235. Web.
Peterson, Charles H., Stanley D. Rice, Jeffrey W. Short, Daniel Esler, James L. Bodkin, Brenda E. Ballachey, and David B. Irons. “Long-term Ecosystem Response to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.” Science Magazine 302 (2003): 2082-2085.
Sánchez, F., F. Velasco, J.e. Cartes, I. Olaso, I. Preciado, E. Fanelli, A. Serrano, and J.l. Gutierrez-Zabala. “Monitoring the Prestige Oil Spill Impacts on Some Key Species of the Northern Iberian Shelf.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 53.5-7 (2006): 332-49. Web.
Whitehead, A. “Interactions between Oil-Spill Pollutants and Natural Stressors Can Compound Ecotoxicological Effects.” Integrative and Comparative Biology 53.4 (2013): 635-47. Web.
“Use of Oil.” Use of Oil – Energy Explained, Your Guide To Understanding Energy – Energy Information Administration. U.S. Energy Information Administration, 28 Nov. 2016. Web. 10 May 2017.
Most of us can remember hearing about the effects of oil pollution on our environment, especially with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. It was plastered all over the local news for days. Still, I felt so distant from this problem, being nearly 2,000 miles away. How could this possibly relate to me? Why should I care? We have to inspire our youth today to be invested in environmental issues. We need to lobby our governing bodies to improve laws and regulations surrounding these problems before it is too late. We should encourage the introduction of new laws regulating remediation efforts, oil company oversight, and research efforts. The most effective way of doing this is to prove the economic burden that could potentially be had if we continue to abuse our environment’s natural resources. Without a healthy environment, human life as we know it would be at risk. We need to act now.