Worst Oil Spill Disasters In History

by | Oct 27, 2022 | Environment

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Humans have always used oil for various purposes like medicine, weapons, and more. However, the use of oil did not significantly increase until the industrial revolution. The global oil demand has resulted in thousands of oil spills over the years. During the 2010s, around 164,000 tonnes of oil was lost from tanker spills of 7 tonnes and more- around a 95 per cent reduction since the 1970s.

Worst Oil Spill Disasters In History: Statistics - ITOPF


Every year from 2010 to 2019, there was an average of 1.8 oil spills from tanker incidents. Oil spills can be as small as a few gallons or as big as a million gallons. Large oil spills can destroy an entire species and an uninhabitable ecosystem for several years. Not to mention the deadly ecological impacts it has on humans and animals.

Here are 10 of the worst oil spill disasters in history:

Worst Oil Spill Disasters In History

1. The Persian Gulf Oil Spill

One of the worst oil spill disasters in history was the Persian Gulf oil spill, also known as the Gulf War oil spill, as it was used as a defence tactic. This incident occurred in January 1991, when the Iraqi forces opened valves at an offshore oil terminal and dumped oil from tankers into the sea to prevent American soldiers from landing on their shores.

This oil spill resulted in a four-inch-thick oil slick across 4,000 square miles of the Persian Gulf. According to estimates, around 22 or 50 per cent of the population of several species of grebe and cormorants died due to the spill. It also impacted sea temperatures, plankton, and marine organisms.

The settlement reached over the oil spill was a $5.5 billion Clean Water Act penalty, $8.1 billion in natural resource damages, $700 to address future natural resource damage, and more.

2. BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The BP Deepwater Horizon was also one of the worst oil spill disasters in history. This oil spill is considered the world’s largest accidental spill. It occurred on 22nd April 2010, when an oil well a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico blew out. It caused an explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig and killed 11 people.

Oil flowed out at a rate of 2.5 million gallons per day until the well was capped on 15th July 2010. The spill oiled 572 miles of the Gulf shoreline and killed several birds and marine creatures. This oil spill had several long-term effects on the environment.

It caused around $17.2 billion in environmental damage to the Gulf of Mexico. As for the environmental compensation, a separate settlement of civil claims against BP created two pots of money- around $14.1 billion- that state and local governments can use to restore natural resources.

3. Ixtoc I Oil Spill

This oil spill that occurred on 3rd June 1979 also involved an offshore oil well. Pemex, a Mexican petroleum company, was drilling an oil well when a blowout occurred. The oil began to gush out the well into the Bay of Campeche off Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico, at a rate of 10,000 to 30,000 barrels per day for an entire year.

This oil spill affected beaches, mangroves, rivers, and coastal lagoons. It severely impacted marine creatures like shrimp, octopuses, and Kemp’s ridley turtles. According to estimates, the total amount of money lost to the spill was 913.3 million dollars. Both the United States and the Mexican governments were unable to hold Pemex and Permargo responsible for the oil spill.

4. Atlantic Empress Oil Spill

This oil spill occurred on 19th July 1979, when the Greek oil tanker Atlantic Empress was caught in a storm off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago. It collided with another tanker- the Aegean Captain. As a result, the Atlantic Empress caught fire, and both the Aegean Captain and the Atlantic Empress started leaking oil.

Approximately 287,000 tonnes of oil leaked, and only minor shore pollution was recorded on nearby islands. The Atlantic Empress gradually sank into the deep waters.

Worst Oil Spill Disasters In History: The Worst Oil Tanker Catastrophes


5. Komi Pipeline Oil Spill

On 1st October 1994, a poorly maintained pipeline caused a huge oil spill in the Komi province of Russia. The pipeline was leaking for about eight months; a dike contained the oil until the cold weather caused it to collapse.

Millions of gallons of oil leaked and spread across 170 acres of marshland, fragile bogs, and streams. Yearly flooding in the province threatened to wash the oil into rivers that emptied into the Arctic Ocean. The oil in the rivers made it uninhabitable for marine organisms. Russian oil producer Lukoil operated the pipeline.

6. Castillo de Bellver Oil Spill

On the 6th of August 1983, a Spanish tanker, the Castillo de Bellver, travelling from the Persian Gulf to Spain, Caught fire. The tanker broke in two, and the stern sank along with 100 million tons of oil. Approximately 79 million gallons of oil spilt into the ocean.

Around 1,500 affected gannets were found on a nearby island. There were cases of black rain over crops and land within the first 24 hours of the spill. No clean-up was conducted after the spill except for some dispersant spraying.

7. ABT Summer Oil Spill

On 28th May 1991, an ABT tanker detonated off the coast of Angola; it spilt around 79 million gallons of oil into the ocean. A massive slick covering an area of 80 square miles spread around the ABT tanker and burned for three days.

This oil spill had fewer environmental impacts as the spill occurred on the high seas, where waves break up the oil. The oil was estimated to be naturally vaporized without leaving a substantial dent in the naturally occurring marine environment.

8. Amoco Cadiz Oil Spill

On the 16th of March 1978, a large crude carrier, the Amoco Cadiz, got caught in a winter storm that damaged the ship’s rudder. The problem with the Amoco could not be fixed; its steering wheel failed, which caused the ship to collide with the Portsall Rocks off the coast of Brittany.

Approximately 194 million gallons of oil spilt into the English Channel as the tanker broke in half. This oil spill caused thousands of mortalities among nereid worms, limpets, and intertidal crabs. Over 3,200 birds of 30 species were found dead. The ecological impacts lasted for decades. A federal judge ordered the Amoco Corporation to pay around $155 million for the several damages caused by the oil spill.

9. MT Haven Tanker Oil Spill

The MT Haven oil tanker exploded and sank off the coast of Italy on the 11th of April 1991. Nearly 44 million gallons of oil leaked into the Mediterranean. The MT Haven tanker was scrapped after a missile hit it during the Iran-Iraq war but was put back into use.

Authorities tried to tow the vessel to the coast, but the bow broke, sinking the entire ship. This oil spill resulted in the heavy contamination of the Italian coastline and even the French and Monaco coastlines to a lesser extent. Fisheries along the coast of Italy and France suffered for several years from the pollution.

10. Odyssey Oil Spill

On 10th November 1988, a tanker named Odyssey carried around 132 metric tons of oil when it got caught in a storm. As it endured the brutal storm, an explosion occurred on the vessel, causing it to split into two parts. Over 40 million gallons of oil leaked out of the tanker, covering an area of 30 square miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

Clean-up was not conducted as the spill took place far away from the shore. The oil spill severely impacted the local krill population, which in turn affected the food chain for several years.

Also Read: How Does The EPA Handle Oil Spills?


  • Dr. Emily Greenfield

    Dr. Emily Greenfield is a highly accomplished environmentalist with over 30 years of experience in writing, reviewing, and publishing content on various environmental topics. Hailing from the United States, she has dedicated her career to raising awareness about environmental issues and promoting sustainable practices.

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