History of Oil Spills

Oil spills are devastating in terms of the environmental and economic damage they cause. Despite costly clean-up efforts, oil can remain present in the water, sand, and marine life for decades after the spill occurs. This threatens the lives of plants, fish, seabirds, and other organisms in the ocean. Oils spills can also affect the livelihood of people; businesses and workers in the fishing, shipping, and tourism industries may find themselves out of work for years to come. The history of oil spills shows that these accidents have had a devastating impact on the surrounding ecosystems.

History of oil spills infographic

U.S. Oil Spills

Some of the most famous oil spills to affect the United States include:

  1. Gulf Coast Oil Spill (April 20, 2010): An explosion at the site of a well caused 200,000 gallons of oil to leak into the Gulf of Mexico each day; the Gulf Coast oil leak may surpass the Exxon-Valdez disaster as the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
  2. Mega Borg (June 8, 1990): A lightering accident caused explosions and fires on the Norwegian oil tanker Mega Borg. It is estimated that 4 million gallons of fuel was released into the waters, about 60 miles off the coast of Galveston, Texas. However, experts say that the majority of the fuel burned in surface fires.
  3. Exxon-Valdez (March 24, 1989): The Exxon-Valdez disaster was caused when the oil tanker hit a reef off the coast of Alaska and leaked 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.
  4. Burmah Agate (November 1, 1979): The oil tanker Burmah Agate collided with the freighter Mimosa at the entrance to Galveston Harbor. The accident badly damaged the hull of the Burmah Agate and caused an explosion. It is estimated that 2.6 million gallons of oil was released into the Gulf of Mexico.
  5. Argo Merchant (December 15, 1976): The Liberian-owned Argo Merchant oil tanker shipwrecked near Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. A few days later, the ship split open and its entire cargo of 7.7 million gallons spilled into the water.

Oil Spills Worldwide

Some of the major oil spills that have occurred in other areas of the world have been even more devastating than the biggest oil spills in the United States.

  1. Gulf War Oil Spill (January 21, 1991): Iraqi forces opened valves at oil terminals, dumped oil from tankers, and destroyed oil wells during the first Gulf War. According to estimates, between 240 and 460 million gallons of oil were spilled.
  2. Ixtoc I (June 3, 1979): The Mexican government-owned Pemex oil company was drilling an oil well when a blowout occurred. The accident caused an estimated 140 million gallons of oil to spill into the Bay of Campeche, near Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico.
  3. Atlantic Empress (July 19, 1979): When two oil tankers that were fully loaded with fuel, the Atlantic Empress and Aegean Captain, collided of the coast of Tobago, almost 90 million gallons of fuel was released into the Caribbean Sea.

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