When oil pollutes the sea, it not only contaminates it and risks the health of all marine life, but the very action is an act of desecration.
Oil is made from the decay of plants and animals from around 600 million years ago that is now in the form of hydrocarbon compounds, called petroleum. Crude oil is made up of gas, naphtha, kerosene, light gas, and residuals that make it very toxic to consume. Due to the random placement of oil's origins, it is first collected and many times transferred on vessels, known as tankers, overseas. When there are complications due to faulty equipment, negligence from the crew, political warfare, or natural disasters; it can cause severe degradation. For example, in 1988, the Liberian tanker known as Odyssey sank after an explosion on board and discharged 43 million gallons of oil off the coast of Nova Scotia. In 1991, Iraqi forces dumped 240 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf and lit it all on fire to block the United States during the Gulf war. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill came from a BP oil rig explosion that released 53,000 barrels of oil a day over a three month period in 2010. And there have been several more oil spills in recent history, many of which are just as bad as these; killing hundreds of fish, marine mammals, and seabirds, as well as dozens of crew members.
After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred from the tanker running aground on Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef in Alaska and discharged 10.9 million gallons of oil into the sea, Congress passed the Oil Spill Pollution Act (OPA) in 1990. OPA contains regulations and procedures to ensure the tankers are prepared with plans and strict policies in the case of emergencies, as well as better maintained equipment. OPA also includes a trust fund, financed by oil taxes, that help fund oil spill cleanups when the responsible party is unable to cover the costs on their own. However, cleaning oil spills have gotten costlier and costlier over time to the point that the trust fund becomes quickly depleted and monetary increments have to be added, like was the case for the Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco in 2007; discharging 53,000 gallons of oil and cost over 44 million dollars in restoration fees. The future reliability of the Oil Pollution Act, even with its amendments, is still under debate.
Unfortunately, the effects of oil spills are better understood to scientists in the short-term, rather than the long-term. We know that this a toxic material that can endanger the lives of animals that come in direct contact with it, it damages the beauty and health of the ocean, it affects our recreation and our economy, as well as our food sources. It costs billions of dollars to clean and restore, and it damages jobs and the lives of humans. But oil doesn't really dissipate or dilute, it just sort of settles at the bottom of the ocean. It's been years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico, and we're still not quite sure how much of it still harms the beings that interact with it due to it being so far deep in the water column. Sadly, the Gulf of Mexico was already not much understood to biologists because extensive exploration had not yet been exercised to the extent of other marine areas, so it's difficult to compare it to its original health aside from what we've already understood. Researchers have seen a lot of bounce-back from the resilience of the Gulf, but the larger mammals, and maybe even the smaller ones as well, are still healing from it and in the thick of it. Much of it also comes down to oceans being the least understood environment to us.
In the short-term effects, oil pollution destroys insulating properties of fur-bearing mammals, such as sea otters and fur seals, and strips the water repellency of seabirds' feathers. This prevents the protection from cold water which can kill the animals from hypothermia. Oil also affects seabirds by preventing them from flying or floating on the water, which can lead to drowning. Instinctively, these animals try to clean themselves to be rid of the oil, but then this becomes ingested and poisons them by damaging their lungs, livers, and kidneys; resulting in death. Oil pollution also affects adult fish by reducing their growth, enlarging their livers, a change in cardiovascular and respiration rates, fin erosion, and reproduction impairment. When exposed, oil can adversely affect eggs and larval survival and it can contaminate plankton. And sea turtles are unable to go to shore for nesting activities when there's an oil spill.
cleanup and prevention
A major oil spill is extremely difficult to contain because of how physically impossible it is to mobilize the labor needed and current cleanup technologies in a timely fashion. It just gets everywhere immediately and is on par to trying to catch smoke with your bare hands. There are four main ways to try and clean oil: booms to contain the oil (which does not work in icy water); skimmers to remove the oil; fire to burn the oil (which creates air pollution); and chemical dispersants, such as Corexit, to break the oil into smaller pieces (which then affects the beings in the lower water column, and potentially harms workers from the chemical exposure). Thirty years after the Exxon Valdez spill, and the cleanup technology hasn't changed and, in fact, hasn't really changed much since the 1960's. In fact, Exxon Valdez has already racked up $2 billion in cleanup and restoration and there's still lasting effects. Thus, there is no way to clean up an oil spill with or without a trust fund incentive- not completely.
The absolute sure-fire way to prevent this from happening is to lower dependence on foreign oil and oil in general, and utilizing more alternative energy. That said, increasing regulations and prevention plans for crews of tankers, such as enforced through the Oil Pollution Act, are beneficial and do make a difference until we are able to depend fully on renewable energy. There must be an increase in awareness of the thousands of other beings that we share this planet with, who are vulnerable to becoming victimized by our actions and lackadaisical behavior. Even if we choose to bus our commutes or carpool, instead of purchasing an electric car or bicycle, we can still help to prevent the demand for more oil.