Oil Pipelines and Spills

Keystone XL Pipeline

The Keystone Pipeline is a pipeline that runs from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. There is currently a project working on expanding the pipeline called the Keystone XL. This expanded version of the pipeline can expose the environment and citizens to serious risk. The Keystone XL website states, “[The] Keystone XL Pipeline will be the safest and most advanced pipeline operation in North America. It will not only bring essential infrastructure to North American oil producers, but it will also provide jobs, long-term energy independence and an economic boost to Americans” (Keysone-xl). Despite this claim, residents, near the construction have experienced health detriments.

Ponca City, Oklahoma is an example of one of the cities that is being affected by the expansion of the Keystone pipeline. Ponca City is now receiving an increased amount of toxic emissions from tar sand transport. Tar sand is composed of sand, petroleum, and mineral salts; a highly toxic class of chemicals are also added (Tar Sands Blockade). Tar sand produces 17% more greenhouse gases than traditional crude oil (NPR). The air quality has become life threatening, and residents are forced to breathe in dangerous emissions. Children in surrounding the new pipeline are 56% more likely to develop leukemia versus children that live ten miles away. Even though the Keystone XL website states that it will be the "safest pipeline" in North American, shabby construction work has already had to be redone. If a leak does occur once the pipe is built, residents will be at risk of toxic exposure. In every instance of a tar sand leak in populated areas, toxic chemical exposure through respiration has occurred. Toxic chemical exposure can lead to migraines, painful rashes, breathing complications, nausea, chemical sensitivities, and exacerbated cancer activity (Tar Sands Blockade). Tar sand sinks into water, making the cleanup extraordinarily expensive. When tar sand is exposed to air, the harmful chemicals that are added as diluents evaporate into the air forming heavy toxic clouds close to ground level.

pipeline above the ground ( NPR )

pipelines in the US(Duke Blog)

Oil Spills Facts

  • The three largest oil spills in history are The Gulf War oil Spill, Lakeview Gusher #1, and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill ( Oil and Gas IQ).
  • Oil spills often result in both immediate and long-term environmental damage. Some of the environmental damage caused by an oil spill can last for decades after the spill occurs. (About)
  • Oil coats and clings to every rock and grain of sand. If the oil washes into coastal marshes, mangrove forests or other wetlands, fibrous plants and grasses absorb the oil, which can damage the plants and make the whole area unsuitable as wildlife habitat. (About)
  • Despite massive clean-up efforts following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, a 2007 study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that 26,000 gallons of oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill was still present in the sand along the Alaska shoreline. (US Economy)
  • Diminishing sea ice is increasing access to Arctic waters, potentially enabling industrial activities such as shipping oil and gas development (Oceans North)

Dangers of Oil Spills

Because of the increased demand for oil, new locations are constantly being explored for a source for oil. The Arctic Ocean is one such area. An oil spill in an artic environment can be very dangerous. Currently, there is no technology proven to effectively clean up an oil spill in Arctic areas. The Arctic Ocean would be negatively affected by the oil industry like any other ocean would, but there is not enough data of negative effects to prevent drilling.

Crude oil is dangerous because it typically contains more than 1,000 chemicals. A large majority of these chemicals are hazardous to humans, such as benzene. Small traces of benzene are found in the air due to car exhaust and cigarette smoke, but increased exposure to benzene can result in leukemia and neurological problems. Undeterred by the harm that these chemicals can cause, there are no clear federal guidelines for the chemical exposure at oil spills and there are no long term studies to show the damage these chemicals can cause to human health (Inside Climate News).

Once oil has been spilled and reaches the shore, there are only a few options to deal with the spill. The most common are physical removal and letting nature take its course. In some situations, physically removing oil using detergents or high pressure water can lead to more damage. If nature is left to take its course, the oil will eventually be broken down by natural physical and biological processes.

Microbes play an important role in breaking down oil in sediments. While microbial communities are affected by oil spills, some microbe species have the capacity to biodegrade hydrocarbons and play a significant role in returning the environment to a ‘natural’ state. In some cases, oil has been detected in sediments decades after an oil spill. One way to reduce the longevity of the oil spilled is to increase the microbial community in order to process hydrocarbons faster. Even after the oil is no longer visible, it will continue to effect the environment (CSIRO).

Oil Types

There are five different categories for oils, ranging from very light oils to very heavy oils. Each of these different groups affect ecosystems differently and cause a varying amount of damage.

  • Gasoline and jet fuel make up the very light oil category. Very light oils are extremely toxic to marine life, but it evaporates quickly when spilled a spill occurs in water, so there is no need to clean it up.
  • Crude oils, such as petroleum, make up the medium oil group which is also known as group 3 oils. Group 3 oils do not evaporate quickly and can cause a serious threat to birds and mammals. The clean-up of medium oil spills are most successful if done immediately after the spill.
  • Group 5 oils, or very heavy oils, are not as toxic as the lighter oils which makes them more difficult to find. When a spill occurs involving group 5 oils, the oil hovers and diffuses into the water. Because of this, animals that live on the ocean floor such as lobsters are greatly affected (Dartmouth).

Effects of Oil Spills


An oil spill can have a major impact on the economy in coastal areas. The fishing industry can be heavily affected by an oil spill. Valuable fishing areas maybe closed down for any period of time if an oil spill occurs. Petroleum contaminants, if consumed, pose a significant threat to human health, so when an oil spill occurs fish and shellfish must be cleared by health authorities before they are deemed safe for human consumption. Fisheries can even be affected indirectly when consumers are unwilling to buy fish from regions affected by an oil spill.

Tourism can also be affected by an oil spill. During an oil spill the shoreline can be contaminated, causing coastal recreation to become restricted. Oil can also damage the gear on a boat. This can lead to a significant loss of profit to people who benefit financially from coastal tourism and recreation.

Even industries that are not close to the coast can be affected by an oil spill. Some industries depend on clean water for cooling purposes, such as nuclear plants. If these facilities get oil into their water tank it would lead to the contamination of the piping system, resulting in the plant having to shut down to clean out its piping system (Global Marine Oil Pollution Information Gateway).

oil spilled on a sandy shoreline(Total Mortgage)


Oil spills do not only put animals at risk, but also humans. A person’s health can be affected when touching or breathing oil products. Consuming fish or shellfish that is contaminated with oil can pose a serious negative effect on human health. However, fish and shellfish that is tainted with oil usually tastes very bad and thus will generally be avoided by consumers (Global Marine Oil Pollution Information Gateway).


Oil harms wildlife through toxic contamination or physical contact. Toxic contamination usually occurs when an animal ingests or inhales oil. This can lead to reproductive problems, trouble digesting, and damage to the central nervous system, liver, and lungs. Physical contact is when oil come in contact with an animal’s fur or feathers. When physical contact occurs with a bird’s feathers, it destroys the protective layer and can also clog the feathers, making it impossible for the bird to fly or float. Even a small amount of oil on a bird’s feathers can kill it. Physical contact with oil can also have a deadly effect on mammals. Oil affects mammal’s ability to insulate themselves, which can lead to hyperthermia and death. Any animal can be affected by breathing in the dangerous hydrocarbons left on the water’s surface from the oil (Global Marine Oil Pollution Information Gateway).

wildlife covered in crude oilTime Inc)

Marine environment

Oil spills affect every ecosystem differently. Marshes are possibly the ecosystem most sensitive to oils spills, while rocky cliffs and seawalls are less sensitive. Also, the characteristics of the spill and the conditions of the area affect how great of a toll an oil spill will have on the ecosystem (Global Marine Oil Pollution Information Gateway). Some of these characteristics include the type of spillage, the quantity of oil, and the effects of tidal waves (Dartmouth). For instance, oil remains in the water longer at colder temperatures because of low evaporation rates. Oil is also able to travel to longer distances in colder temperatures because the frozen ground prevents the oil from seeping in. Even though the condition of the oil spill can affect the damage that is done to the area, there is not a correlation between the amount of oil spilled and the damage that is done. For example, a 10-ton spill in the Baltic Sea killed more than 60,000 long-tailed ducks, while a spill of about 40,000 tons in Alaskan waters only killed about 30,000 seabirds. The recovery time after an oil spill is also different for every ecosystem. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to twenty years before an area is fully recovered. Recovery occurs more rapidly in warmer climates than it does in cooler climates (Global Marine Oil Pollution Information Gateway).

Oil spill in grassy areas



  • Crude oil: A fossil fuel formed from plant and animal remains many millions of years ago. It comprises organic compounds built up from hydrogen and carbon atoms and is, accordingly, often referred to as hydrocarbons. Crude oil is occasionally found in springs or pools but is usually drilled from wells beneath the earth's surface.
  • Tar: A black or brown hydrocarbon material that ranges in consistency from a heavy liquid to a solid.
  • Weathering: Action of the wind, waves and water on a substance, such as oil, that leads to disintegration or deterioration of the substance

Brant Phillips

Last Updated: February 01, 2017