Fluctuations in any natural ecosystem have the potential to wreak havoc on the environment and animal populations as a whole.
The impact of environmental oil spills has been studied for decades, thus there is a certain predictive quality regarding the events that will occur immediately after an oil spill. One might assume that if the nature of oil spills and recovery efforts are predictive, than adequate measures can be taken to prevent the devastation most often associated with these spills. This is not however always the case.
Among the primary biological impacts of an oil spill include: (1) physical and chemical alteration of the natural habitat, (2) physical smothering of fauna and flora, (3) lethal and sub-lethal toxic effects on marine and wildlife and (4) changes in the biological communities including organisms and animal (Dicks, 1998). Not one of these effects can be described as minor, rather all of them have the potential to result in serious long-term consequences.
Best/Worst Case Scenarios
The problem of oil transport will not go away, and the likelihood that tankers will be banned from major waterways is slim. Thus it is important that some form of compromise be reached. At this point the best organizations such as the EPA can hope for are instillation of adequate prevention and protection efforts to reduce the likelihood of future spills.
Fortunately tanking agencies and oil companies such as Exxon are collaboratively working to try to minimize spills. Protecting the environment from oil spills however is very costly, and the bulk of any efforts to prevent or clean oil spills falls on the hands of those that are most likely to cause them... shipping and oil companies. Thus there is some hesitation on the part of these agencies to enact measures that might be seen as 'overly precautious.' In the worst case scenario companies will fail to adhere to the requirements and guidelines established by environmental protection agencies and oil spills will continue to be a wide reaching problem over time.
In other countries including the European Union particularly Spain and France, the government is looking at criminalizing officers on vessels that pollute the environment via oil spills (Arentz, 2004). The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation is one group working to help spread the good word about the efforts of tankers to clean up their act however, to prevent such legislation from being widespread.
There is some progress being made toward prevention of oil spills. However spills are still occurring. In the 1990s alone more than 1.1 million tones of oil were spilt, and in 2002 the "Prestige" spilt 77,000 tons of oil (Arentz, 2004). Of course the most expensive oil spill and most well-known oil spill in history was that of the Exxon Valdez crisis, where clean up costs exceeded 9.5 billion (Arentz, 2004).
As Argue, Furchtgott-roth, Hurdle, Mosteller & Owen (1995) point out there are those disasters that are unavoidable, and there are others including oil spills that are avoidable if only at the price of costly precautions. Oil spills are not simply a problem confined to oil tankers thought that is the most common perception of the public. Oil spills can occur on land as well, and when they do occur on land they often spill into lakes, rivers and wetlands causing a large amount of damage (EPA, 2004).
Oil spills are potentially the most hazardous and devastating pollutant to natural aquatic systems and surrounding ecosystems. Oil spills have the potential to not only affect the environment in the short-term, but also in the long-term. Animals that are killed in the short-term may impact the food chain supply of other animals, leading to a chain of events that can continue for years to come.
Habitats that are altered even minimally in the short-term might never fully recover in the long-term. Though recovery efforts may help a habitat once again support a species and normal animal/wildlife, that habitat will never recover to the extent that it was prior to the oil spill. The long-term effects of an oil spill often ignored include the impact on the economy and even the reproductive/breeding patterns of animals living in an affected ecosystem.
It is critical that organizations supporting the environment including the EPA, Sierra Club and Greenpeace work together with major oil transporters including the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation to take every step necessary to mitigate the risks associated with oil transport over major waterways. Oil via a collaborative effort might the true risk of environmental devastation be minimized in the future.
Arentz, P. (2004). "Oil Spills a very costly business." Scandinavian Shipping Gazette.