World Journal

The Invisible Weight of Oil: An Urgent Reminder to Maritime Disasters.

The Invisible Weight of Oil: An Urgent Reminder to Maritime Disasters.

In recent years, oil accidents at sea have continued to pose a serious threat to marine ecosystems and coastal communities around the world. These accidents, often caused by ship collisions, oil spills from offshore platforms or tanker vessel failures have caused devastating environmental damage and have had lasting economic impacts.

Who the ITOPF is and what it does

The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited (ITOPF) maintains a database on oil spills from tankers, including combined transport vessels, Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSOs) and barges. It contains information on accidental spills of persistent and non-persistent hydrocarbons since 1970, except those resulting from acts of war. The data held include the location and cause of the incident, the vessel involved, the type of oil spilled, and the amount of spill. For historical reasons, spills are generally classified by size, <7 tons, 7-700 tons, and >700 tons, although the actual amount spilled is also recorded. Currently, information is available on more than 10,000 incidents, most of which fall into the smallest category, i.e., <7 tons. Over the past half century, statistics on the frequency of oil spills greater than 7 tons from tankers have shown a marked downward trend, as illustrated in the Figure below.

In the 1970s the average number of spills per year was about 79. In the 2010s it decreased by more than 90 percent to 6.3 and remained at a similar level in the past decade.

Accidents in 2023

The ITOPF has published its statistics on oil spills from tankers for the year 2023, showing that 10 oil spills exceeding seven tons occurred during the year.

The worst of the 10 incidents in 2023 occurred in Asia and resulted in a heavy fuel oil spill with a volume exceeding 700 tons; thus, falling under the classification of “large” spills. The other nine incidents are classified as “medium” spills, as having a volume greater than seven tons but less than 700 tons, and involved spills of ultra-low sulfur fuel oil, crude oil, and gasoline. Four of these incidents occurred in Asia, two in Africa, two in Europe and one in America.

The total volume of oil leaked into the environment from tanker spills in 2023 was about 2,000 tons. This estimate is lower than the previous two years and remains a fraction of the total amount of oil transported by sea each year. 

Spills over the course of years

Accidental spills from tankers account for only a small percentage of the oil that enters the environment each year. Spills from pipelines, oil industry activities, oil use (including oil spills from non-tanker vessels and “runoff” from roads and other land-based sources) and natural seepage all contribute to the annual input. Therefore, the ITOPF report shows only part of the picture regarding the overall input of oil into the marine environment.

Despite some annual fluctuations, the number and volume of oil spills from tankers have plummeted since ITOPF records began half a century ago. While the number of spills in recent years has been stabilizing at a low level, ITOPF notes that the volume of oil released into the environment from tankers continues to fluctuate from year to year.

Of the 20 worst accidents, “only” 3 occurred in the new Millennium

The Prestige, an old oil tanker, sank off the coast of Galicia, Spain, on November 13, 2002, spilling 60,000 tons of oil. This accident polluted 2,300 kilometers of coastline and more than 1,000 beaches, severely damaging the local fishing industry. It was the largest environmental disaster in the history of Spain and Portugal.

On December 7, 2007, the oil tanker Hebei Spiriti was struck by a barge while at anchor off Taean, South Korea. The barge broke free from the trailer in bad weather, puncturing three cargo tanks on the port side. Despite the crew’s efforts, about 10,900 tons of crude oil was released into the sea.

The Iranian-owned tanker Sanchi collided with the cargo ship CF Crystal off Shanghai, China, on January 6, 2018. The Sanchi caught fire and sank after a week, killing all 32 crew members. The accident caused economic damage estimated at about $110 million, including $60 million for the cargo and $50 million for the ship itself.

In conclusion

Oil accidents pose a serious threat to the marine environment and global coastal communities, despite efforts to improve maritime safety. The growing demand for energy increases the risk of accidents while transporting oil over seas and oceans. It is crucial that the maritime transportation and oil industry sectors take stringent measures to prevent accidents and respond promptly in the event of an emergency. In addition, it is essential to develop safer technologies for oil extraction, transportation and storage to reduce the risk of accidents and protect marine ecosystems. Adopting stricter international standards and investing in sustainable energy alternatives are key to reducing dependence on fossil fuels and mitigating negative impacts on the environment. Only with global and coordinated efforts can we protect our oceans and ensure a sustainable future for generations to come.

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