Oil Spills Everywhere

by Bradford Plumer | July 29, 2010

BP has capped its leaking Macondo well, but that doesn't mean oil spills are now a thing of the past. Up in Michigan, a million gallons of crude have sloshed out of a pipeline into the Kalamazoo River. Governor Granholm has already declared the region a disaster area—and this may turn into the worst oil leak ever in the Midwest. According to the Michigan Messenger's Todd Haywood, this isn't a first-time offense for the pipeline owner: "Documents from the agency show that Enbridge Energy pipelines have leaked oil on 12 different occasions in Michigan since 2002."

So just how common are "smaller" spills like these? Surprisingly common, actually. The National Wildlife Federation has just released a new report tallying up the number of oil accidents in the past decade. The numbers are striking. Between 2001 and 2007, there were 1,443 offshore-drilling accidents in the Outer Continental Shelf, with 41 fatalities, 476 fires, and 356 "pollution events." Onshore, there have been 2,554 "significant" pipeline accidents between 2000 and 2009, with 161 fatalities. Kate Sheppard has a useful map charting all the incidents mentioned in the report:

What's more, there's good reason to believe the oil-spill toll is actually far higher than this. After all, it's not just existing pipelines and platforms that are a concern. A recent AP investigation found that there are nearly 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico, many of which were closed in the 1940s and 1950s, and the sealing jobs on many of these wells are in questionable condition. One key tidbit: "Regulations for temporarily abandoned wells require oil companies to present plans to reuse or permanently plug such wells within a year, but the AP found that the rule is routinely circumvented, and that more than 1,000 wells have lingered in that unfinished condition for more than a decade."

Many of these abandoned wells do face the (small but real) risk of a blowout—it's not impossible for a well to repressurize, but much more typical are little leaks and natural seeps that are nearly impossible to detect. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) does sometimes spot oily patches around the Gulf, but, according to the AP, "MMS typically learns of a leak only when someone spots it by chance." And yet these tiny leaks add up in a big way—according to a 2002 National Research Council report, nearly 60 percent of the oil in North American waters comes from tiny little natural seeps like these. (Less than 8 percent comes from tanker or pipeline spills—the rest comes from runoff, airplanes, and boats.)

It'd be interesting to try to get a global picture here, too. Oil disasters are, after all, still quite frequent in developing countries. Over at Solve Climate, David Sassoon has some ghastly pictures of a massive oil spill near the Chinese port city of Dalian, where two pipelines exploded on July 16. Even though the Yellow Sea leak is smaller than BP's disaster, there seems to be a lot more oil hitting the Chinese shores—possibly because BP used so many dispersants to break up the crude and send it down to the sea floor. Worse, Chinese workers are cleaning up the oil with their bare hands (needless to say, that's not safe—as the CDC notes, coming into direct contact with the chemicals contained in oil can be hazardous):

It's a good reminder that oil accidents won't go away with a moratorium or two in the Gulf of Mexico.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-vine/76654/oil-spills-are-everywhere