Offshore oil - a very messy business

It is a year since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. The accident killed 11 men and released over 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico leading to the largest accidental marine oil spill in history.

For three months we watched as attempts to stop the underwater gusher continued to fail. The spectacle provided a stark reminder of the extreme difficulty of dealing with such an event.

Since then some progress has been made. Most notably, in January, the US President’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling issued recommendations to address how, where and when to drill for oil and gas. There's still much work to be done. But at least decision-makers are moving in the right direction.
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill in April 2010 was the latest episode in a familiar story of polluted waterways, destroyed ecosystems and devastated communities.

These images tell the story of oil spills around the world...

PHOTOS: oil spills around the world

© U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Stumberg © U.S. Coast Guard 8th District © Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC © U.S. Coast Guard / Petty Officer 3rd Class Ann Marie Gorden. © Dr. Oscar Garcia / Florida State University © U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area / Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley © U.S. Coast Guard / Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew S. Masaschi. © U.S. Navy / Patrick Nichols © U.S. Coast Guard / Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall. © Michael Sutton / WWF © Office of Response and Restoration, National Ocean Service, NOAA © Paul Glendell / WWF © Jorge SIERRA / WWF © Y.-J. Rey-Millet / WWF © WWF-Pakistan / WWF © Nigel Dickinson / WWF © Martin Harvey / WWF © Jorge SIERRA / WWF © WWF-Norway / Elizabeth Bergli Kjønø © National Geographic Stock/ James P. Blair / WWF © Jorge SIERRA / WWF

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What if it happened in the Arctic?

The impact of an oil spill in arctic waters has the potential to be far more devastating than the Gulf spill.

Frigid temperatures, powerful ice, months of perpetual winter darkness and the remoteness of the Arctic would make it challenging – and perhaps impossible – to stop or clean up an oil spill there.

A rush to drill in the Arctic could prove disastrous to the survival of polar bears, walrus, whales and other arctic species and could cause staggering damage to their fragile habitats.

We cannot afford to lose momentum. With high gas prices and instability in Africa and the Middle East, pressure to open up the Arctic for offshore drilling is intense. This is evident in Shell Oil’s proposal for offshore drilling in the Arctic (specifically, Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas) in 2012 and 2013. It is the most aggressive plan ever presented for this region: six wells in 2012 and six more in 2013.

What keeps me up at night is the thought of a Gulf-magnitude energy disaster up in the Arctic, where our capacity to respond would be next to nothing.

Darron Collins, WWF-US


Did you know?

    • Oceans cover 71% of our planet’s surface and make up 95% of all the space available to life.
    • Since 1940 there have been over 60 major spills with an accumulated amount of 1.7 billion gallons of oil spilled on land and sea (view infographic).

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