Largest Oil Spills in History

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Oil Spills – Overview 

Undoubtedly the most famous oil spill in the recent era is the Deepwater Horizon in 2010. The spill killed 11 workers and thousands of marine species. The clean-up cost for British Petroleum was $65 billion. But was this really the largest oil spill in history?

Not really. 

Not all oil spills are the same. There are several types of which can affect the land and water in multiple ways but for better-understanding oil spills around the world can be divided into three categories. 

  1. Tanker accidents 
  2. Acts of war 
  3. Out of control oil wells

Though out of control oil wells are not a common phenomenon, they are responsible for some of the largest spills in history. However, so far tanker accidents are the most common category of oil spills and account for the loss of over one million barrels of oil. Let’s take a look at some of the largest oil spills. 

The Amoco Cadiz Oil Spill – 1978

On the morning of March 16, 1978, Amoco Cadiz, an oil tanker was navigating through the rough sea of the English Channel. A big wave struck the rudder and the hydraulic system. The ship ran aground on the very sharp rocks on the island of Brittany in France at around 6:00 AM. Since the sea conditions were adverse, it was almost impossible for the rescue workers to do anything about the spill.  Even the rescue toe lines couldn’t last for a few hours. The shallow underwater rocks on the island finally damaged the hull and the leakage from the tanker began. 

From there onwards, over the next few days, more than 1.6 million barrels of oil spilled into the sea and spread over more than 200 miles along the French coast. The spillage killed millions of sea inhabitants and thousands of birds and contaminated the oyster bed in the region. The Amoco Corporation, the owners of Cadiz, agreed to pay $155 million as a claimant in the incident.

The Atlantic Empress – 1979

Amoco Cadiz Oil Spill

Atlantic Empress, which was in service for more than five years, collided with Aegean Captain on July 19th, 1979. The collision occurred on the coast of Trinidad and Tobago. During a tropical storm, both the ships couldn’t do much as the ships came on to a collision path and finally collided.

This became one of the worst disasters the oil shipping industry has ever faced at that time. Around 2.13 million barrels of oil spilled into the sea. Both the ships caught fire as a result of the collision but the response action was pretty quick. Rescue workers towed the burning Atlantic Empress to open waters where it burnt for several days and finally sank.

On the other hand, the Aegean Captain was towed towards the coast as the fire was controlled and the ship sustained minimum damages. Regardless of the fact that so much oil was spilled, there was minimal damages to the beaches and sea inhabitants as the wind directed most of the oil away from the shores and the oil very quickly dispersed. However, 27 sailors lost their lives. The estimated loss of oil from this accident was approximately 88.3 million gallons. 

Ixtoc 1 Oil Well – 1979

The Ixtox well is located around 50 miles NorthWest of Ciudad del Carmen Gulf of Mexico. The well at the time of the accident was operated by Pemex, a Mexican government owned oil drilling company. It is estimated the oil spill during the process was estimated to be 3.3 million barrels.

It all started in June 1979 when Ixtoc 1 oil well which was exploring oil at 50 meters in the water exploded. Subsequently, the platform collapsed and damaged the valves of the rig. This made it very difficult to close the rig and finally, the rig was sealed after nine months of rigorous hard work by the workers. 

The reason for the incident according to the experts was the drilling mud which failed to circulate, resulting in oil and gas pressure building up in the pipes. Operators tried to plug the hole but natural gas went up and by-passed the blowout preventer valve. As a result, it came in contact with motors up on the rig platform which eventually exploded leading to fire.

According to the experts, if the blow out protector valve had worked adequately and released the gas in the open air, the incident could have been avoided.

Over the course of the next nine months, the oil continued to pollute the beaches in the Western Yucatan Peninsula in southern Texas. This resulted in a loss of marine life. The tourism industry in the region also suffered. 

BP’s Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill – 2010

The most known oil spill of recent times is the BP Deepwater horizon. This accident also occurred in the Gulf of Mexico which is considered to be the hub of oil and natural gas. 

On April 20th, 2010 at around 3:00 PM, a pocket of natural gas blasted all the way up through the Cement well cap which was installed on April 8th of the same year. Subsequently the gas travelled up to the rigs and the platform was ignited as a result.

This immediately resulted in severe devastation on the site. The platform could not sustain the damages and two days later it sank in the water. This accident was a result of an error in BP’s engineering judgment. Due to this mishap, the company had to pay an amount of $65 billion in compensation.

To date, this remains the largest accidental oil spill.  The well was finally capped on September 17th the same year, almost five months from the day of the explosion. The amount of oil lost as a result of this accident is still not confirmed. According to the most accurate estimates, 4.9 million barrels of oil were lost. By the time, the well was capped, around 1,300 miles of the US Gulf Coast ranging from Texas to Florida was covered with oil.  

The accident resulted in the death of 11 individuals and left 17 injured. The loss was not restricted to human lives, but the marine species also suffered severely. Around 800,000 birds were killed as a result of this spill including a brown pelican which was recently delisted from the list of endangered species. Also, 6,500 turtles died.

There are many other oil spills, but these four mentioned ones remain the largest oil spills in the world.