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17 Ways How to Treat Oil Spills in the Ocean

by Ranisa Alda

The offshore gas and oil production has begun from more than a century ago. The oil extraction has been industrialized from the mid of the 19th century to be exact. About 147 billion tonnes of oil then have been pumped from some reserves around the world, half of it were even pumped between 1990 to 2010. The World Ocean Review explained how the oil and gas could form in the ocean.

From their report on the state of the world’s oceans in 2010, they explained “gas and oil form in the sea over a period of millions of years, as the remains of animals and plants sink to the ocean floor. Combined with particles flushed from the land, they are buried and compressed into layers of sediment several kilometers thick on the ocean floor. Aided by the Earth’s pressure and temperature conditions, bacteria convert the biomass into precursor substances from which hydrocarbons are ultimately formed.

These hydrocarbons can permeate certain layers of rock and sediment as they move up towards the surface, in a process called migration. In some cases they become trapped in impermeable layers of rock, which is where the actual deposits are ultimately formed. Depending on the ambient conditions, oil or natural gas develops.”

All of the oils extracted from the sea of course needs to be transported to the land to be processed further and used by all the people who needs it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of accidents happened during the transporting of the oils. Oil spills can happen, mostly when huge tankers or trucks are transporting a large number of oil. The oil spill then become one of the causes of oil pollution in the ocean and the damages caused by it is not something to be overlook at. Here are some ways to treat oil spills in the ocean to prevent further damage, if it were to happen again (hopefully not).

See also: Social Effects of Ocean Polution

  1. Skimming

This is a process where (usually) two boats will tow a collection of boom, making the spilled oil to be trapped inside of it, where the oil will then get picked up by a “skimmer”. This process is intended to remove the oil from the affected sea’s surface to prevent it reach the sensitive areas along a coastline. The skimmers can come in various types, it will then transport the oil into a collection tank that will usually positioned on a boat. But of course, the process of skimming will also make it to pick up some sea water during the process. That’s why, the volume of oil removed with the skimming method will be referred as gallons of oil-water mixture.

  1. In Situ Burning

In situ (Latin for on site) burning of the spilled oil can be done to treat the oil spill but it should be noted that this can only be implemented on the daylight with mild or offshore winds and flat seas to prevent it spread to other unaffected areas. Air monitoring is also an important thing to do with this method to prevent spreading of the burned residue to other unaffected areas as well. The process of this method is similar with skimming where two boats will tow a collection of fire-retardant boom to gather oil who will then be burned.

  1. Surface Chemical Dispersants

This method is conducted by disposing chemical dispersants from a plane or a response vessel to break the oil into smaller droplets, allowing it to blend easier with the water column. However, this method has downside whereas small droplets of oil will make it easier to be consumed by tiny marine life forms. Although then this way will make the outcome less harmful, the method still requires a lot of thinking before being implemented since it involves living creatures in the process of it. Because of this downside too, the chemical dispersants method is never implemented in places close to the shore, shallow waters, near coastal communities, or when there are potential winds who may bring the oil droplets and chemical spray away from its initially-targeted place.

See also: Threat to Ocean Organisms

  1. Underwater Chemical Dispersants

The method is indeed similar to those of the surface one, disposing chemical dispersants to the spilled oil. However, this method requires the use of remote vehicles to apply the chemical dispersants underwater to specifically to prevent it travel deeper into the depth of the ocean. But with that being said, it should be noted that this method might be ineffective to be implemented at extreme depth and that this technique is not completely tested so it is not developed correctly yet. Some scientists even worry that this method will only release more toxic components and ruin the ocean especially the underwater ecosystem even further.

See also: Types of Rocks on Ocean Floor

  1. Biodegradation

This method intended to perform biodegradation to the spilled oil by disposing bacteria and micro-organisms to the oil spills. This method can be performed to oil that has been washed up along a shoreline where the oil will be broken down with biodegradation process. The biodegradation will occur when a lot of micro-organisms and bacteria break down the spilled oil into harmless substances like carbon dioxide and fatty acids for example. The process can add fertilizing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous to encourage the growth of the micro-organisms to speed up the pace of this method. However, like the previous method, there has to be a thorough thinking first before the actual implementation of the method since it includes living forms in the process and may cause destruction of ocean habitat.

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  1. Sorbent Materials

The method using these sorbent materials is one of the most-talked traditional ways to treat oil spills. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, these sorbent materials are most often used to clean up small spills or remove final traces from a large spill. The materials said are used in oil spills since it can absorb oil in varying degrees, some of it can even swell to more than 50 percent. However, there are some downsides too with this method. The problem is, since they absorb the oil, the materials then must be retrieved and needs further handling, which may be extremely difficult and could potentially affect more harm.

  1. Vacuum/Pumping

Can be used to remove pooled oil on marshes’ sediment or the surface of the water. Vegetation cutting can be done first if there are plants among the water in order to make the methods work effectively.

  1. Mechanical/Manual Cleanup

This method is done by placing workers and machines on the shore to clean up the spills when the oil reaches the shore. The workers will be armed with shovels, rakes, and gloves. While the heavy machineries are going to be used when it occurs in areas that are plagued by heavy oiled beaches or areas with thick debris. This method, although takes a long time and old school, is preferable because it can make use for unskilled workers.

  1. Natural Recovery

This may sound unresponsible and hard-to-accept for some people, but in some cases, this method might be the best idea. In some areas where there might be highly-dense vegetation or relatively remote areas, this method (which requires nothing to do, yes) might be the best option since using other ways to treat oil spills in the ocean might hurt the affected area even more. The wave action, sunlight, natural water dispersion, and naturally occurring microorganisms in the ocean will all contribute to break down the spill oil.

  1. Water-Oil Separating Devices

The BP plc, company whose responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was proposed by some water-oil separating device when the huge spill happened. The devices can sometimes separate the water and oil in large volumes. One of the company who offered this kind of device was EVTN who showed their technology which is Voraxial Separator that can creates a vortex who then will captures the oil and push the clean water outwards. However, BP plc responded that the company is still considering these offered devices.

  1. Gelling Agents

Gelling agents are chemical products that can be used to solidify the oil spills with intension to make the spilled oil easier to collect. The gelling agents will turn the oil into a rubbery substance that can be easily removed from water skimmers, nets, or suction devices using the motion of the sea. However, there is a problem with this method whereas three times as much gelling agents as oil is needed to achieve the desired idea to take place. Thus, this method would be impractical and ineffective to be implemented on large spill cases.

  1. Hay

The hay is usually used for road construction companies to control oil erosion along the highways and back roads. It turns out that this method can also be used to soak up spilled oil and leave the clean water behind. This method can be implemented to clean up the oil that has reached the beaches. However, most experts believe that this method may not be the best option to be implemented on large spills as the could potentially make even more problems since the oil-soaked hay itself would need to be disposed on a vast area.

  1. Hair Mats

On the beginning of BP oil spill crisis, a non-profit environmental organization named Matter of Trust believe that human hair is a possible material to be used for cleaning up the spilled oil. The NGO then teamed up with thousands of salons around the world to gather up the cutted hair that would normally be just swept and thrown into the trash cans in their salons and turn them into clippings. The clippings then will be stuffed into mesh or nylon casings to create improvised containment booms to control the spilled oil.

  1. Mushrooms

A biologist named Paul Stamets invented a form of bioremediation using fungi as one of the ways to treat oil spills in the ocean, called as mycoremediation. His study focuses on how mushrooms can be used to decontaminate affected areas. This can happen because mushrooms secrete enzymes and acids which can aid in the decomposition of complex organic contaminants. One of Dr. Stamets’ experiment showed how oyster mushrooms can break down oil into nontoxic components within just four weeks.

  1. Pine Shavings

Pine shavings has this natural absorbency to soak up pet waste, as well as oil spills. The shavings that have absorbs the oil will then be burned in an incinerator. However, this method will likely be useful for small spills only since it wil be difficult to gather the shavings in a large spill. This method was used during the Hancock Sawmill oil spill in Maine at 2005.

  1. Bees Wax

PRP/WAPED (Petroleum Remediation Product and Water Pollution Eradication Device) was used in the cleaning of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The technology is invented by Dr. Joseph A. Resnick who is also a former NASA scholar. The technology mentioned above consists of microscopic balls of beeswax which contains pseudomonad bacteria, ranging from size 0.25 to 0.65 micrometers. The work of this bacteria in treating the oil spill is that because it will eat the hydrocarbon compounds which can be found in crude oil. They can also work well in ecologically sensitive areas where conventional methods will be hard to be implemented.

  1. Nuclear

This might sound such a ridiculous and dangerous idea but the idea did come up during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill since people become so desperate to solve the problem. The idea is to use a nuclear blast to seal the well. However, the idea was indeed turned down. Engineers suggested that this method would also destroy the wellhead, making the lead even more impossible and harder to be sealed.

See also: Threats to Ocean Ecosystems

Those are the ways that can be done when oil spills happen in the ocean. Each and every way of course have their own requirements before them being implemented. Some of the ways even have some downsides in return so there needs to be some thorough thinking first before the actual implementation. In the end, we all sure hope there will be no such unfortunate tragedy to happen again in the future. Hopefully this article was helpful enough for you.

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