Oil spills are a particularly frightening and shocking environmental disaster, due in part to
the immediately visible consequences to animals and habitat. Many state and federal agencies
are involved in preventing and responding to oil spills. For details on the California Coastal
Commission's role, visit our Oil
California has been the site of several large oil spills in recent history. In 1969, a blowout of a Union
Oil drilling rig platform off the coast of Santa Barbara resulted in a spill of
4.2 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean and onto nearby shores. This
disaster is considered to have been a catalyst for the modern environmental movement. In 1971, 800,000 gallons of bunker
fuel spilled in San Francisco Bay, with a devestating impact on local species. In Huntington Beach
in 1990, the American
Trader oil tanker spilled more than 416,000 gallons of crude oil, killing an
estimated 3,400 birds. In 2007, a container ship struck the Bay Bridge and spilled 58,000 gallons of
bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay. A video is posted modeling the movement of that oil in the Bay. On May 19, 2015
a crude oil pipeline spilled 100,000 gallons into the ocean at Refugio State Beach
in Santa Barbara County.
Why is oil harmful to the environment?
Oil in the water can be deadly for animals. Oil is toxic when ingested. When birds get oil on their
feathers, it impairs the important waterproofing that is necessary to keep a bird warm. A bird may
also lose its ability to float in the water or to fly if it is covered in oil. Oiled marine mammals
may suffer from hypothermia. Oil may cause reproductive problems and genetic abnormalities in fish.
Contaminants may enter the food chain and result in seafood that is unfit for people to eat.
As of November 26, 2007, 2,125 birds were either found dead or died after collection due to the
Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay. As of that date, 773 birds had been cleaned of oil
and 188 of those had been released back into the Bay. Recovery workers after the 1989 Exxon Valdez
incident, which spilled 11 million gallons of oil in Alaska, collected about 30,000 dead oiled birds
and 1,000 dead sea otters, among other animals. Many other animals were likely affected but not
recovered. Dolphin health was still being impacted years after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon
explosion that spilled more than 130 million gallons into Gulf of Mexico waters.
More information on the effects of oil on wildlife:
What is the government doing to prevent oil spills?
After the large Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, both the United States and California
governments enacted laws to help prevent oil spills. The
Safety Management Code, enforced since 1998, requires ships entering U.S. ports to meet
certain standards, including procedures for reporting accidents and requiring qualified crew.
In 1990, the U.S. enacted the Oil Pollution Act (OPA). One of the things OPA did was require that oil tankers
be double-hulled, and requires the phase out of existing single-hull tankers. A double-hull
further protects a ship from damage to its cargo tank, reducing the risk of oil spilling during
an accident. California enacted the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act in 1990, which
established the Office of Oil Spill Prevention
and Response within the Department of Fish and Game, which is authorized to direct spill response,
cleanup, and natural resource damage assessment activities, as well as regulate all private vessels
over 300 gross tons (672,000 pounds) that enter California ports.
What can you do to protect the Bay and the ocean?
Although large oil spills are disastrous for people and wildlife, much of the oil spilled into
the ocean comes from runoff from roadways that flows into storm drains and then into waterways. This means
that individuals can have a big impact on the health of our coast and ocean.
What can you do?
Classroom activities about oil spills
Oil Spill Glossary
Here are a few words you may run into when learning about oil spills:
Barrel: In the petroleum industry, a barrel of oil is 42 U.S. gallons. (California Energy Commission)
Boom (Containment Boom): A floating mechanical structure that extends above and below the water surface, designed to
stop or divert the movement of an oil slick (a smooth area on the surface of water caused by the
presence of oil). (Hazardous Materials Dictionary)
Bunker fuel oil: A very heavy substance, left over after other fuels have been distilled from crude oil. It is
used in power plants, ships and large heating installation. The oil has a high sulfur content
which causes air quality concerns when burned. (California Energy Commission)
Crude oil: A comparatively volatile liquid bitumen composed principally of hydrocarbon, with
traces of sulphur, nitrogen or oxygen compounds; can be removed from the earth in a liquid
state. (European Environmental Agency)
Oil spill: The accidental release of oil, or other petroleum products usually into freshwater or marine
ecosystems, and usually in large quantities. It can be controlled by chemical dispersion,
combustion, mechanical containment, and absorption. (European Environmental Agency)
Water column: A hypothetical "cylinder" of water from the surface of a water body to the bottom and within
which physical and chemical properties can be measured. (EPA)