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Oil Spills

Grades 7-8 | Argumentative | Source-Based

Source Lexile®: 1160L-1430L

Learning Standards





Prompt: In the 20th century, oil emerged as the energy source most in demand throughout the world. Competition was fierce, and companies across the globe used various transportation techniques to import and export oil. Tankers shipped oil across oceans, while railroads and pipelines moved oil above and underground.


Over the past 200 years, each method for transporting oil has seen its share of accidents. When a tanker wrecks or a pipeline bursts, oil leaks into the natural environment and has an effect on the life forms that dwell there.


Read the following sources about oil spills and their effects. Make a claim about the extent to which ecosystems and the environment recover from oil spills. Use evidence from the sources to support your claim and acknowledge alternate viewpoints.





Source 1

Oil Spills: Severity and Consequences to Our Ecosystem

Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science

Winter 2012

March 11, 2012



Oil spills are a byproduct of human activity in which oil is leaked “from ships, shore facilities, pipelines and offshore platforms”. Despite popular belief, the largest contributors to oil spills are not tankers, ships that carry large amounts of oil, but rather automobiles, boats, industrial plants, and machinery. This oil eventually reaches the ocean where it harms marine ecosystems. The severity of oil spills, however, is influenced by many factors, including the type of spillage, the quantity of oil, and the effects of tidal waves.



Categories of Oil and Associated Severities


According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, oil spills can be classified into five categories: very light oils, light oils, medium oils, heavy oils and very heavy oils.


Very light oils, such as gasoline and jet fuel, are extremely toxic to marine organisms, but evaporate rapidly in water so cleaning spills of this type is unnecessary.


Light oils, such as diesel, leave a residue in water and have long-term consequences on ocean life. Although light oils have fewer toxins than very light oils, they are still damaging. Nevertheless, light oil spills can be effectively cleaned.


Medium oils, including crude oils like petroleum, do not evaporate quickly. As such, these oils can devastate marine communities residing in intertidal areas, or areas between high and low waters. Medium oils are especially threatening to birds and mammals as they can adhere to their feathers, hair, or fur. Cleaning up medium oils is most successful if done immediately following the spill.


Heavy oils, on the other hand, are less likely to evaporate in water and can be exceptionally detrimental to aquatic life. Heavy oils are known to injure birds and mammals that come in contact with the contaminated site. Decontaminating areas in which heavy oils have been spilt is also very challenging.


Very heavy oils, also known as Group V oils, are capable of hovering and diffusing into water, affecting animals like lobster, which subsist on ocean floors. While Group V oils are not as toxic as the lighter oils, finding and pinpointing these oils is a difficult task.



Detrimental Outcomes of Oil Spills


Because oil does not dissolve in water, it undergoes a “biological, physical and chemical process called weathering”. Weathering degrades oil through natural mechanisms produced by sunlight, tidal waves, water temperature, and bacteria. As a result, some oil spills have short-term consequences, persisting for only weeks. If oil contaminates shallow water, however, the results can be much more dire. In these cases, the oil mixes with mud and other substances and accumulates on the bottom. As a result, the oil can last for decades causing a number of problems for marine life that comes in contact with the contaminated materials.


In the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill of 2010, 4.9 million barrels of crude oil were spilt in the Gulf of Mexico. According to Time, thousands of dead invertebrates like starfish and coral were found. Unfortunately, these species play an essential role in the ecosystems to which they belong, thereby impacting many other marine populations. Similarly, many dolphin offspring were found dead along the Gulf Coast. Oyster beds were also devastated by the oil spill; in fact, it could take ten years for the population to reach its former size.


The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was equally catastrophic. According to BBC News, the oil killed over 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 250 bald eagles, 300 harbor seals, and 22 killer whales, as well as countless herring and salmon.


In addition to killing many sea dwellers, oil spills can also impact the health of those that survive. Oil can modify invertebrate feeding habitats, disrupt their shell development, and cause slow suffocation. Bottom-dwelling invertebrates are especially at risk when oil accumulates at the shoreline. Many bottom-dwellers can survive oil contamination; however, they transmit these toxins to their predators, leading to increased concentration of the toxins in higher species. From oil spills, fish can experience impeded growth, respiratory and cardiac malfunction, and stunted larval development. As a result, survival rates for offspring are low.


Oil spills can similarly thwart plant development. They can also spur growth of certain algae populations. When oil directly contacts birds, it can get in their feathers, which impedes their abilities to fly. As a result, many birds drown while others die of hypothermia. If oil is ingested, kidney, liver and lung damage often results, usually followed by death. Other side effects include an inability to reproduce, abnormal behaviors, a debilitated immune system, and skin irritability.


Humans can also be affected by oil spills. In Ogoniland, Nigeria, for example, the people have dealt with nearly 50 years of oil production and water contamination. Many communities are faced with dangerous levels of carcinogens, cancer-causing agents. In one such community, families are drinking water polluted with benzene, a type of carcinogen, at a concentration 900 times that considered to be safe. In other areas of Ogoniland, nearly eight centimeters of oil were found on top of the water. This horrific spill has so far killed tens of thousands of people, as well as livestock, and is predicted to take up to 30 years to reach its former clean state. Altogether, it will cost approximately $1 billion to rebuild the area. The Shell Oil Company, which was responsible for the spill, has neglected the impact this spill has had on the Nigerians. They have, however, taken responsibility for the recent 2008 and 2009 oil spills.



Cleaning Up


There are many natural processes that degrade oil, but human efforts are often required to prevent long-term damage to the environment from oil spills. There are four main methods by which an oil spill can be cleaned up: booms, skimmers, chemicals, or burning. Booms are floating devices used to trap, collect, and absorb the oil surrounding it. Skimmers are boats that can remove the oil from the surface of the water. Certain chemicals can be used to break down the oil into its less dangerous components. Lastly burning the oil is also possible, but this is often avoided because it can produce unwanted air pollutants. The effectiveness of the cleanup depends on a number of factors, including tidal waves and weather conditions.


Although it is debated whether humans could live without oil, we are heavily dependent on it in the modern world. Nevertheless, companies must follow safe protocols. Unlike the Shell Oil Company’s failure to comply with this ordinance in Nigeria, companies must be prepared in advance to minimize the negative effects of oil spills on the environment. After the BP oil spill, BP proceeded to strengthen blowout preventers, install emergency systems, have pressure examinations, and increase personnel training. Although programs like these will not eliminate oil spills and leaks, they can at least help reduce the problem. The government also requires tankers to be double-hulled, which decreases the incidence of oil spills. Inspections and maintenance of the tanks can also be performed to reduce oil leaks.



Looking Forward


If we continue to use oil in our everyday lives, we must make sure to use it efficiently. Individuals can make a significant difference with relatively simple efforts. The California Coastal Commission suggests learning how to correctly change and remove motor oil from vehicles, getting a vehicle tuned, taking public transportation, biking, and becoming an oil spill volunteer as possible ways to help improve marine life. The challenge now is taking the steps to ensure this is what happens.





Source 2

220 'Significant' Pipeline Spills Already This Year Exposes Troubling Safety Record

by Dan Zukowski

October 25, 2016



Three major U.S. pipeline spills within the last month are just a small part of the 220 significant incidents reported so far this year—and 3,032 since 2006—that provide a stark reminder of the environmental hazards of an aging pipeline infrastructure carrying fossil fuels. The costs of these leaks since 2006 has amounted to $4.7 billion.


  1. Oklahoma: On October 24, the 30-inch S-1 pipeline carrying crude oil from the critical Cushing, Oklahoma hub to refineries and chemical plants on the Gulf Coast began to leak and was shut down overnight. It was the second release connected with the Cushing storage facility in less than a month.
  2. Pennsylvania: On October 21, 55,000 gallons of gasoline gushed from a ruptured Sunoco Logistics pipeline in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, just upstream from the Susquehanna River. Carol Parenzan, Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper, said that witnesses who contacted her office reported that the "smell of petroleum is so thick you can taste it." The 80-year old pipeline was damaged by a heavy storm that dumped seven inches of rain on the area.
  3. Alabama: Last month, the Colonial Pipeline in Alabama leaked an estimated 336,000 gallons of gasoline and triggered concerns about gas shortages for drivers in the East. That spill was Colonial's fifth in the state this year and occurred on a 43-year old section of the pipeline.

Based on data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of significant pipeline incidents grew 26.8 percent from 2006 to 2015. A significant incident is defined as one that results in serious injury or fatality, costs more than $50,000, releases more than five barrels of volatile fluids such as gasoline or 50 barrels of other liquids, or results in a fire or explosion. In 2015, there were 326 such incidents—almost one per day.


Some 55 percent of the U.S. network of 135,000 miles of pipeline is more than 45 years old. Technology designed to detect pipeline leaks is highly unreliable, even though companies like Colonial Pipeline tout their use as a way "to insure safe operations." But a recent Reuters report found that these technologies are "about as successful as a random member of the public" finding a leak. Of 466 incidents studied by Reuters, only 22 percent, or 105, were detected by advanced detection systems. The others were found in different ways, with the public finding 99 of the leaks.


In testimony before a House subcommittee earlier this year, Carl Weimer, executive director of the watchdog group Pipeline Safety Trust, said, "Under the current statutes there is no requirement that a pipeline company obtain any permit or permission to operate a pipeline in this country." Weimer called on Congress to require PHMSA to issue permits for interstate transmission pipelines and ensure that the company follow all rules and regulations.


"It is important that we not only maintain our aging energy infrastructure, but that we also remain vigilant about new pipelines and energy interests that threaten water quality," said Parenzan.





Source 3

Environmental Effects of Oil Spills


The effects of oil spills can have wide ranging impacts that are often portrayed by the media as long lasting environmental disasters. Such perceptions are understandable as they are often fuelled by distressing images of oiled birds and other wildlife.


It is true that an oil spill can have severe short term effects, especially when organisms are considered on an individual basis. However, environmental impacts should always be measured in a scientific context and should be appraised at an ecosystem rather than individual level. In other words, it is important (or more representative of long term environmental effects) to base the extent of environmental damage on the effects to ecosystems. For example, has the ecosystem retained its normal functions or how quickly will they resume following an oil spill?



How Can Oil Spills Cause Damage to the Environment?


The effects of an oil spill will depend on a variety of factors including, the quantity and type of oil spilled, and how it interacts with the marine environment. Prevailing weather conditions will also influence the oil’s physical characteristics and its behavior. Other key factors include the biological and ecological attributes of the area; the ecological significance of key species and their sensitivity to oil pollution as well as the time of year. It is important to remember that the clean-up techniques selected will also have a bearing on the environmental effects of a spill.



What Characterizes Recovery for the Marine Environment?


Extensive research and detailed post-spill studies have shown that even major oil spills will rarely cause permanent effects.


Marine ecosystems have high natural variability and are subject to ever-changing environmental phenomena such as storms, climatic anomalies (ex. El Niño) as well as anthropogenic pressures. Furthermore, marine organisms have varying degrees of natural resilience to these pressures on their habitats. This natural variability means it is unlikely that exact pre-spill conditions will be reached. It makes determining the point of recovery following an oil spill, and the time it will take, difficult to accurately predict.


It is generally accepted that recovery is reached when a community of plants and animals characteristic of that habitat are established and functioning normally.











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