Global Oil Spills and Modern Solutions

Oil spills have been a threat to the environment ever since freight shipping began in the 1950s. We dive into the dynamic data looking at the current state of oil spills, their devastating effect on the aquatic environment, the unforeseen problems and the modern solutions working hard to keep our waters clean.

Devastating effects

Staggeringly, just 1 litre of oil can contaminate 1 million litres of water. It is estimated that approximately 2.7 billion litres of waste oil enters the ocean every year, this means that about 2.7 trillion litres of water is polluted by oil each year. History has shown that cleaning up this oil is not very efficient and varies widely, with the recovery rate ranging from 5% and 20% of the initial volume spilled. This has caused ever-lasting damage to aquatic life.

The damage caused by oil pollution can be compartmentalised into three major categories:

  • Oil spills can cause severe ecological alterations. The pollution destroys the aquatic organic substrate, which consequently disrupts the food chain, resulting in the extinction of species.
  • Animals that live in or near the ocean often experience smothering from the oil waste, causing hyperthermia, as well as the loss of habitats and shelter during the destructive clean-up process.
  • There are significant clean-up costs required in oil spill responses.
  • Disruption of financial confidence, recreational activities, power generation, agriculture, commercial fishing, tourism, and interconnected industries, such as transport, often follows.
  • Health and safety concerns, as oil waste that invades and pollutes coastal areas negatively affect mental and physical health of population, as well as causing financial stress to the local community.

Global Oils Spill Trend

Unfortunately, reporting of spills is difficult to achieve as data is often incomplete, making it highly unreliable. In the last five decades, approximately 16.6 billion litres of oil have been lost in our waters due to global tanker incidents. However, promisingly, there has been a significant reduction in volume of oil spilt over the last 50 years (cf. Figure 1 & 2). These reported incidents however only relate to major oil spill incidents, classified as medium (7–700 tonnes) and large (>700 tonnes) sizes. Therefore, the true total quantity of oil spills, including small sizes, is both far greater and largely unknown.

Annual number of oil spills

Figure 1: Annual number of oil spills (>7tonnes) over last 50 years, (ITOPF)

Major oil spills since 1967

Figure 2: Major oil spills since 1967 (rounded to nearest thousand), (ITOPF)

In the 1970s, the average number of spills per year was 79 – this figure has now decreased by over 90% to a low of 6 (cf. Figure 3).

Number of SpillsFigure 3: Number of Spills (>7 tonnes) from 1970-2019 (ITOPF)

Location of spills from 1970-2019Figure 4: Location of spills from 1970-2019 (ITOPF)

Why the decline in oil spills?

Clearly, things are moving in the right direction, with oil spills at an all-time low, but why?

The most significant factor causing this decrease in oil spills over the last 50 years has been regulation. This has been in particular with regards to the introduction of the MARPOL 73/78 legislation which has signatories from 156 states. This accounts for 99.42% of the world’s shipping tonnage. The current convention covers spills ranging from bilge washing (failure to notify the government of illegal, but intentional, discharges from ships) to major accidental oil spills due to groundings or collisions; all are subject to severe fines and other significant penalties.

An example is the US Oil Pollution Act of 1990 charges criminal fines of $25,000 per day and/or one year imprisonment against a party that negligently caused an oil spill. While increased tanker movements implies increased risk, it is encouraging to observe the inverse relationship as the downward trend in frequency of oil spills continues. This is despite an overall increase in oil trading over the same period (cf. Figure 5).

Decline in number of tanks spills

Figure 5: Decline in number of tanks spills vs growth in crude and other tanker trade loaded (ITOPF)

However, many companies are reshoring manufacturing facilities and the current economic climate, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, suggests a negative oil trade outlook from 2021 as domestic production increases.

There has also been a huge global drive to reduce fossil fuels, headlined by Biden’s sustainable agenda which included re-joining the Paris climate agreement. In addition, the EU is looking to cut carbon emissions by 55% of its 1990 levels within a decade, adding strong stimulus to this movement. Alternative modes of freight transport are also being considered, such as the re-emergence of rail and electronic vehicle trucking. The UK is also set to ban the sale of petrol cars by 2030. All of this points towards a global reduction in the demand for oil. This in turn will likely help to reduce the rate of oil spills even further.

Grey area over small oil spills

Although medium and large spills have fallen dramatically over the last 5 decades due to strict penalties enforced by regulators, there seems to be a grey area of how big of an issue small oil spills really are. Over 80% of oil spills recorded in the last five decades fall into the smallest spill size category. This includes spills of less than 7 tonnes in size. Unfortunately, the volume of small oil spills is unquantifiable due to incomplete reporting.

In order to seriously tackle the severity of all oil spills, it is paramount that data is obtained about small oil spills. This is needed to quantify the severity of the problem and that we may build metrics that regulators can employ.

Modern solutions

RanMarine’s WasteShark

80% of small oil spills arise from operational accidents during loading, discharging, and bunkering within inland environments. There are many start-ups and modern technology entrepreneurs looking to find ways to solve this problem.  This includes the innovative technological solution from RanMarine, founded in 2016.

RanMarine Technology developed the WasteShark, the world’s first data harvesting Autonomous Surface Vessel (ASV) designed to remove unwanted material from urban water. The WasteShark can remotely controlled as well as autonomous. It relies on minimal manpower to collect, detect and analyse water, exposed to unquantifiable, small oil spills in large areas such as ports, marinas and harbours., It boasts a 500kg debris cleaning capacity per day –  it is a solution for monitoring oil pollution, but also a solution to the exponentially growing plastic problem.

WasteShark in marina

This invention should help to assist authorities to verify compliance with pollution regulations, by flagging and identifying polluter infringements, in particular negligence and failure to report unknown incidents, which could result in severe fines. Its successful series A funding last year demonstrates investor interest, increasing traction and huge potential.

All in all, despite being a huge problem 50 years ago, oil spills have become much more regulated and as a result are much more infrequent. Nonetheless, work still needs to be done with regards to small-sized oil spills which are often unreported and therefore ignored. Recent analysis shows global economic losses of $ 474 billion per year from inadequate water supply, sanitation and urban property flood damage.  Innovations such as RanMarine’s support the cleanliness and the health of the Earth’s waters.

Article by Dominic Wall, Market Analyst