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.