Arguably the most famous oil spill in recent history is the 2010 Deepwater Horizon that killed thousands of marine life and paid out billions in compensation.
But was this truly the biggest oil spill in history?
In this article, we take a look at the biggest oil spills and see how the Deepwater Horizon incident compares…
1: Lakeview Well
Oil spilt: 378 million gallons
On March 15, 1910, Lakeview Well erupted, releasing a huge geyser of crude oil. As the days passed, the eruption showed little sign of slowing down and by the 22nd day, it was still as strong as when it first erupted.
The fountain of oil tried to be contained via “hoods” that workers concocted, but the effort was ineffective. The spill continued with between 40,000 and 50,000 barrels of oil being depleted a day.
Finally, on September 9, 1911, the oil well caved in on itself, sealing the leak which had now gone on for 18 months. Over 378 million gallons of crude oil had been spilled.
Despite the significant amount of oil spilt, there was actually very little environmental impact. Black mist fell for a few miles around Lakeview Well but the work carried out by workers and volunteers alike helped reduce adverse effects of the spill. Dikes were built by hand to stop the oil from contaminating the Buena Vista lake, and most of the oil soaked into the soil or evaporated.
Even 100 years on, parts of the area are still soaked with oil, however, little environmental damage has been recorded.
2: The Gulf War
Where: Persian Gulf
Oil spilt: 240 million gallons
During the Gulf War, millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Persian Gulf. Initially, the American armed forces were accused of deliberately creating the spill but it actually transpired that the Iraqi forces were behind it. In a bid to impede US troops from attempting beach landings, Iraqi forces opened the valves of the sea island pipeline, releasing oil from numerous tankers.
This was the first account of using natural resources—particularly pollution—as a tactic of war. The spill resulted in over 240 million gallons of crude oil entering the Persian Gulf and spanned over 60 miles.
While the full scale of damage is still unknown, many scientists believe it to be one of the worst oil spills in human history; effects on marine life and neighbouring shores was extensive.
3: Deepwater Horizon
Where: Gulf of Mexico
Oil spilt: 210 million gallons
Perhaps the most infamous oil spill in recent history is the Deepwater Horizon. Caused by an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, 210 million gallons of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, affecting thousands of marine life and making this the largest marine oil spill in history.
Eleven people were killed as a result from the explosion, with a further seventeen injured. An estimated 1,100 miles of coastline was polluted while thousands of animals were affected, including birds, mammals, and sea turtles.
Due to the number of animals killed in the incident, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is thought to have had the highest mortality rate on record. One of those most affected included the brown pelican—a species which has only recently been delisted as an endangered species.
A study carried out in 2014 stated that up to 800,000 birds were thought to have died and 65,000 turtles were found dead on the shorelines. This included the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.
The catastrophic oil spill cost BP more than $65 billion, including payouts in compensation.
4: Ixtoc Oil Well
Where: Gulf of Mexico
Oil spilt: 140 million gallons
With an estimated 3.5 millions of barrels of oil spilled, the Ixtoc spill in 1979 is one of the world’s largest oil spills in history. The affected areas ranged from Mexico to as far as the north of Texas.
Caused by an explosion which lead to a fire, ultimately resulting in the destruction and sinking of the rig, the Ixtoc oil spill went on for nine months. The incident happened in the June of 1979 and in the initial stages, an estimated 30,000 barrels of oil were leaking each day.
By July 1979, efforts had managed to reduce the daily flow to 20,000 barrels a day. And by August, the flow had been reduced even further, to just 10,000 barrels of oil a day.
According to Pemex, half of the oil spilled was burned when it reached the surface, a third evaporated, and the rest contained or dispersed.
5: Atlantic Empress
Where: Caribbean Sea
Oil spilt: 88.3 million gallons
In July, 1979, two fully loaded very large crude carriers collided during a rainstorm while navigating the Caribbean Sea. Both vessels—The Atlantic Empress and The Aegean Captain—both immediately began leaking oil.
The carriers caught fire, killing 27 crew members. The fire on The Atlantic Empress could not be contained and it took nearly two weeks to sink following the collision.
While the fire consumed a large proportion of the oil cargo, there was still a visible slick spanning 30 miles by 60 miles. Impressively, no significant pollution managed to reach the shores of nearby islands.
Despite this, however, no impact study was ever carried out by the affected countries and later, $30 million would be paid out in claims.
Having burned for two weeks, The Atlantic Empress finally sank on August 3, 1979.
6: Castillo de Bellver
Where: South Africa
Oil spilt: 79 million gallons
On August 6, 1983, the Castillo de Bellver caught fire approximately 70 miles north-west of Cape Town. The ship was carrying 79 million gallons of light crude oil.
Drifting off shore, the ship broke in two. The stern section—possibly with as much as 100,000 tonnes of oil still in its tanks—capsized and sunk, 24 miles off the coast. The bow section was able to be towed away from shorelines and with the use of controlled explosive charges, was eventually sunk.
Approximately 50,000–60,000 tonnes of oil is estimated to have spilled into the sea or burned. However, despite the considerable amount spilt, there was little need for a cleanup operation, although there was some dispersant spraying.
There was little environmental impact on local seal life or nearby farms and sheep which were showered with “black rain”—airborne oil droplets fell for the first 24 hours. Local rich fishing grounds and fish stock were not severely affected.
7: Amoco Cadiz
Where: English Channel
Oil spilt: 69 million gallons
On March 16, 1978, the tanker Amoco Cadiz suffered from a gear failure, causing it to run aground off the coast of Brittany.
The entire cargo—including 223,000 tonnes of light crude oil and 4,000 tonnes of bunker fuel oil—was released into the sea over a two week period. The oil quickly formed an emulsion, which is estimated to have increased the pollutant by up to five times.
By the end of April 1978, 320km of the Brittany coastline had been contaminated. Adverse weather conditions, including strong winds and heavy seas, prevented cleanup operations, resulting in some of the channel islands also becoming contaminated.
At the time of the spill, this incident had resulted in the largest loss of marine life ever recorded due to an oil spill. Millions of dead molluscs, sea urchins, and other benthic species washed ashore in the fortnight following the event. Nearly 20,000 birds died as a result of the spill, with diving birds being the main casualties.
Oyster cultivation was seriously affected and an estimated 9,000 tonnes of oysters were destroyed because of contamination and to safeguard market confidence. Other shell and fin fisheries, as well as seaweed gathering, were also severely affected in the short-term, along with tourism.
8: Motor Tanker Haven
Oil spilt: 45 million gallons
While MT (motor tanker) Haven was onloading a large cargo of oil on April 11, 1991, a huge explosion occurred. The explosion resulted in a roaring fire that raged through the ship, killing five crew members.
The tanker was unloading its cargo at the Multedo oil platform near Genoa, Italy. Three days after the explosion, it finally sank. The incident resulted in an estimated 45 million gallons of crude oil spilling into the Mediterranean Sea.
A large cleanup operation was instigated by the Italian authorities which significantly limited the scale of the disaster. If cleanup efforts were not as they were, the damage would have been far worse.
Much of the spilled oil was burned on the surface while more was pumped out of the burning ship. However, for the next decade, fisheries along both French and Italian coasts suffered severe environmental damage from the pollution.
9: Torrey Canyon
Where: Cornwall, England
Oil spilt: 36 million gallons
In March 1967, the supertanker, Torrey Canyon, collided with rocks off the coast of Cornwall. The collision resulted in more than 100,000 tonnes of crude oil being spilled into the English Channel.
As the first major oil spill in English and European waters, it pioneered the change in how the environment is viewed. Causing severe damage to both marine life and the livelihood of local people, it still stands as the UK’s worst environmental accident.
Beaches were left in knee-deep sludge while more than 15,000 sea birds died, washing up on the shores; some species took decades to recover their populations. But the deaths of birds and mammals in the initial days were only a fraction of the total loss. The effects of the incident lasted years, affecting the bottom of the food chain (including plankton and small invertebrates) right through to mussels and clams, right up to fish, birds, and mammals.
A cleanup effort initiated by the British involved the excessive use of powerful chemicals. But this only led to making a bad situation worse. The thought was that the chemicals would break the oil down and thus allow it to disperse and be removed by natural bacteria. However, the chemicals instead killed any marine life it came into contact with including seaweed, limpets, and fish.
The chemicals pooled on beaches before the tide washed it away, further exacerbating the poisonous effects. For the areas where the chemicals were used, it took 13–15 years to recover. This is approximately five times longer than areas where the oil was dispersed naturally by wind and sea.
10: Exxon Valdez
Oil spilt: 11 million gallons
Leaving the port of Valdez, Alaska, the Exxon Valdez was heading for Long Beach, California. Carrying 53 million gallons of crude oil, the tanker came into serious trouble at four minutes past midnight on March 24, 1989, when it hit the Bligh Reef; a well-known navigational hazard in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
The ship’s hull was torn open as a result of the impact, causing 11 million gallons of oil to spill into the water. At the time, it was the largest single oil spill to have happened in US waters. Initial attempts to contain the spill failed. In the months that followed, the oil slick spread. In all, approximately 1,300 miles of coastline was affected.
Later investigations found that Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of Exxon Valdez, had been drinking at the time of the collision and had allowed an unlicensed third party mate to take control of steering the vessel.
The incident caused the estimated death of 250,000 sea birds, 300 seals, 250 bald eagles, and 22 killer whales. Sea otters were severely affected, with 40% of the population in the Sound being killed—that’s an estimated 3,000 deaths. The sea otter population didn’t fully recover until 2014; that’s 25 years after the incident!
Some reports also estimate that the total economic loss at around $2.8 billion and 30 years on, pockets of crude oil still remain in some locations.