Oil Spill Prevention: Solutions and Challenges

What is an oil spill, and why are companies so gung-ho about it?

The contamination of seawater due to an oil pour, as a result of an accident, human error, or natural calamity, is termed as an oil spill. Oil is an important energy source that needs to be transported in huge volumes through ships across the ocean and via pipelines across the land. There is always a probability of oil spill during transportation owing to inter-vessel collisions, or fire incidents, or thunderstorms causing damage to oil tankers, resulting in a tremendous volume of oil being dispensed into the environment, especially the marine ecosystem.

The paper on oil spill prevention examines different technologies and readiness plans that are necessary at an organizational level to handle the oil spill.

According to Marine Insights, the production of petroleum products rose from 500 million tons in 1950 to 2,500 million tons in mid-1990, resulting in massive transportation and associated oil spills. This number has witnessed a steep rise with the increasing rate of oil transportation, the aging of oil tankers, as well as increasing size of oil tankers.

It is estimated that approximately 706 million gallons of waste oil enter the ocean every year, with over half coming from land drainage and waste disposal; for example, from the improper disposal of used motor oil. Offshore drilling and production operations and oil spills or leaks from ships or tankers typically contribute less than 8 percent of the total oil spill. The remainder comes from routine maintenance of ships (nearly 20 percent), hydrocarbon particles from onshore air pollution (about 13 percent), and natural seepage from the seafloor (over 8 percent).

Who regulates and controls if there is a spill?

Each country has a government agency that takes care of stringent practices, which need to be followed to avoid oil spills and to support immediate action in case of any spill. The key international bodies are International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPC), United Nations Environment Program  World Conservation Monitoring Center (UNEP-WCMC), and World Bank Oil, Gas, Mining and Chemicals. Apart from this, there are several oil industry associations listed below:

Environmental Protection Agency is the principal federal response agency regulating the oil spill management market to prevent, prepare for, and respond to oil spillage occurring in the inland waters of the United States. The US Coast Guard is the lead response agency for spills in coastal waters and deepwater ports. EPA’s Oil Spill Prevention Program includes the Facility Response Plan (FRP) and the Spill Prevention, Control, and Counter (SPCC) measure rules. The FRP rule governs the response plan for a worst-case oil discharge or threat of a discharge. The SPCC rule facilitates the prevention of oil discharge into navigable waters or adjacent shorelines.

How is oil spill controlled?

The first step to tackle the oil spill is to prevent the oil spill from taking place. This typically involves training the teams and following standard practices while bringing the ships to the port, passing through narrow channels, and staying on the prescribed path for the journey. In case of any spill, there are different solutions based on the quantum of the spill and location of the spill. Below are the methods of cleaning the sea after an oil spill takes place:

Oil booms:

  • Oil booms are the most common and popular equipment used in oil clean-up due to their simpler design and easier execution. These are also known as containment booms that enclose the oil to a smaller area and prevents it from spreading further.
  • This method is employed when the area of the spill is comparatively smaller.
  • It is used where the containment booms are locally available; if the boom is to be transported from a faraway site, the spill can expand to a larger area and become difficult to manage.
  • It is used in the water where wave velocity is constant as the fluctuating tide makes it difficult for an oil boom to perform the clean-up operation properly.

Skimmers:

  • Once the oil is bounded by oil booms, it can be extracted or skimmed easily with the help of skimmers or oil scoops. These skimmers are fitted onto boats to remove the floating oil or greasy contaminants.
  • It is an economical method of oil clean-up as the equipment used for skimming oil is relatively cheaper.
  • A major loophole in the use of skimmer in oil decantation is that if debris is present in the confined region, it can choke or clog the skimmer easily.

Sorbents:

Materials that can adsorb or absorb liquids are termed as sorbents. The use of sorbents is a natural process of oil clean-up. The most common types of sorbents are peat moss, vermiculite (straw), and hay. Some other features of sorbents are listed as follows:

  • These materials result in the least wastage and prevent the progression of pollution.
  • They are useful for small spills with the highest efficiency.
  • They are also used to remove small tints of large spill clean-ups.
  • There is also a difficulty in working with sorbents as sorbents become denser than water after absorbing oil and may possibly sink to the bottom of the sea.

Burning:

  • It is similar to burning rice husk after yielding rice crop. In this method, the floating oil is set to fire by igniting it safely. It is the most proficient method of oil clean-up, as it can efficiently remove 98% of the total spilled oil.

Dispersants:

  • When oil cannot be confined to booms, the last option that remains is oil disintegration. Dispersals are chemicals spread over the spilled oil to initiate the disintegration of oil. After disintegration, the surface area of oil molecules increases and it becomes easier for them to form a bond with water. This process takes the bonded molecules deeper in water and makes them available for microbes, which degrade them later on.

Some other methods employed for safer oil spill clean-ups from the sea are hot water washing or washing with high-pressure water; manual labor; and bioremediation and natural recovery.

Which players are involved?

The oil spill management and technology market is split into two broad segments: pre-oil spill management and post-oil spill management. Pre-oil spill includes protection mechanisms such as double hull, pipeline leak detection, blowout preventers, etc., while the post-oil spill includes mechanical, chemical, biological, and physical methods.

Overall challenges

  • Oil spill becomes challenging when it comes to extreme climate zones such as the Arctic. It becomes difficult to remove the oil from ice and collect it.
  • Cold temperatures, poor visibility, remoteness, and lack of required infrastructure and challenges in communication are a few issues involved for spill response in the Arctic region.
  • The oil collected after a long duration faces degradation issues, and hence, may be sold at a lower price or blended with a superior grade.
  • Aquatic species affected with this spill usually migrate or are washed away due to natural agents, thus increasing the impact of the oil spill.

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