Seeking Truth in Oil Spill Reporting

No one denies that major oil spills have a devastating impact on the environment. Disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and the more recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 have demonstrated to the public the dangers of oil pollution on a large scale, and government policy action in the wake of such disasters has, for the most part, consistently reprimanded and penalized the responsible parties. But although a major oil spill may dominate the global news cycle for weeks and months, minor oil spills go virtually unnoticed most of the time, and the government response to these smaller oil spills has been considerably less severe. This might not seem like much of a problem – except for the fact that “minor”2 oil spills might not be minor after all.


The federal government mandates that all oil spills in U.S. waters be reported to the National Response Center, operated by the United States Coast Guard. Whoever reports the spill must also submit an estimate of the size of the spill. Naturally, the first observers of an oil spill are almost always the oil companies themselves, and, owing to a lack of data, the government and the public have had to rely on the approximations submitted by these oil companies when assessing the impact of small-scale oil spills.

Recently, a team of oceanographers from Florida State University set out to assess the accuracy of the estimates submitted to the NRC. Partnering with SkyTruth, a watchdog organization that monitors environmental pollution using satellite technology, the researchers from FSU examined high-resolution images of small oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico reported to the NRC. Software analyzed differences in the surface texture of ocean water to calculate the size of each oil slick, and these calculations were then compared to the estimates submitted to the NRC.

The results were disheartening. In the majority of cases, the area affected by the oil spill had been significantly underestimated – “usually by a factor of 10 or more.”3 This wide-scale underreporting, coupled with the sheer number of minor oil spills that take place, could pose a substantial environmental risk in the long term.

Interestingly, while the magnitude of each reported oil spill was far off the mark, there seemed to be almost no cases in which an oil spill had occurred but hadn’t been reported. These findings can easily be traced back to government policy. If an oil company is found to be responsible for an unreported oil spill, it could face numerous fines and sanctions; however, oil companies are not penalized for underestimating the size of their spills.

Were the government to pursue policy aimed at encouraging the accurate reporting of the size of minor oil spills, one would likely see a marked improvement in the estimates received by the NRC. Nevertheless, the research being done at FSU might prove to be a valuable tool in the assessment and regulation of marine oil pollution.









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2 responses to “Seeking Truth in Oil Spill Reporting

  1. It’s interesting that the availability of satellite imagery is affecting the way that we measure and monitor environmental impacts. In the last few years there have been several major, high-quality commercial satellite imaging systems launched, from Geoeye 1, which is the highest quality commercial imaging available, to RapidEye, which is another commercial satellite imaging system that consists of 5 satellites. Both were launched in 2008. With the continued development of these global imaging systems, to what extent will the behavior of corporations and governments be changed, given that environmental impacts can be easily observed and measured by outside parties? It will be interesting to see what happens with these imaging systems, but it can only be a good thing that the public is more easily able to monitor the impacts various activities are having on the environment.

    To see a cool collection of high-quality images taken by the RapidEye satellites, check out (

  2. Great post! It’s hard to believe that so many industries are getting away with underreporting their spill sizes. I definitely agree there should be stricter reporting policies. An equally, if not more, troubling occurrence in the world of oil spills is how often these accidents, minor or major, happen simply because management at the plants turns a blind eye to safety protocols. A “smaller-scale” BP-related accident that happened before the Deepwater Horizon explosion occurred at a refinery in Texas City, ending in an explosion that killed 15 workers. [1]

    The problems at that specific refinery were well known by the workers through routine check-ups and various warning signs. In other cases, old pieces of equipment hadn’t been replaced in a long time or workers were overworked and weren’t as attentive to safety protocols. In the case of the refinery in Texas City, the local management requested money to conduct the necessary repairs and improve the safety of the plant but were denied any budgetary increases by top management. Thus, these problems were left ignored. When the accident did finally happen, they blamed “error” or “unluckiness,” and then spill sizes were underestimated. Thus, there would be value for the government to pursue tighter policies regarding underestimating spill sizes as well as slapping on heftier fines for plants that carelessly ignore or neglect these problems.


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