The petroleum industry is vital to the international energy market. While pipelines may cause the majority of oil-related spills, tankers themselves still pose a significant danger to the environment. Oil barrels by the millions have to be transported across designated channels every day by fuel ships. There are considerable risks in transporting oil this way, but the dangers may not outweigh the reward.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that 2007 oil production reached approximately 85 million barrels per day. About half of that oil is transported by oil tankers all over the world. Nearly 17 million barrels of crude oil a day are transported along the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Tankers travel along fixed maritime routes called chokepoints. These chokepoints are strategic arteries for energy transport and therefore at high risk for piracy and hazardous oil spills. The EIA warns that even a temporary blockage of strategic chokepoints could lead to substantial increases in total energy costs.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), oil spills from transport tankers only account for about 7.7 percent of oil in the ocean. Yet the opinion of the general public seems swayed by the size of a spill rather than the frequency. Most of the largest oil spills on record were the result of transport-related accidents, including the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
Risks to Marine Life
The oceanography program of Texas A&M University recently published a list of oil spill effects from the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation. The most harmful result of oil-related incidents was the effect on marine animals. Toxic effects from the chemical components of oil can smother and kill marine life. Even less-than-lethal exposure levels can have long-term effects on marine animals' ability to feed and reproduce. Oil spills in open water can contaminate the marine food chain at the most basic levels and cause a deadly domino effect on larger species.
Risks to Birds and Mammals
Transporting oil through the oceans poses a potential danger to aquatic birds and mammals. If a spill does occur, even momentary exposure to petroleum can be fatal for animals. Oil can poison animals if they ingest it. When birds get oil in their feathers, they not only lose their ability to fly but also the waterproof coating that protects their vital organs. In fact, older mammals have an increased chance of suffering hypothermia due to oil-related complications. The California Coastal Commission reports that 2,150 birds died due to the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay. The infamous Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 killed more than 30,000 birds and nearly a thousand other sea mammals before the oil slick was contained.
After the Exxon Valdez spill, both politicians and average citizens clamored for increased government regulation. The risks of transporting oil led to the International Safety Management Code in 1998. This ordinance requires tankers to conform to new standards of quality and accountability. Also, individual states have their own laws and methods of preventing oil-related accidents. The California Coastal Commission reports that California's regulatory agencies require transport ships to prove they have contingency plans in place to handle oil spills and an additional $300 million in insurance.