University of Bristol
Wellcome Trust
Recommended by:
Society of Biology
PEEP for Physics & Ethics at GCSE


Fossil fuels - Oil spills


Pollution from oil is a recent problem because of the greater need for fossil fuels as a source of energy.

Although oil spills from tanker accidents are well known, they are not the major source of oil pollution. Figures are millions of tonnes per annum.

  • Offshore drilling 15
  • Big spills from accidents 37
  • Natural seepage from rocks 62
  • Up in smoke from cars etc. Deposits into water 92
  • Handling errors and dumping oil from water ballast 137
  • Down the drain roads and cities 363

For more detail  visit this website from the Smithsonian Institute

What is oil?

  • Oil is a complex of organic substances which spread out on the surface of water.
  • The light fractions evaporate into the atmosphere.
  • Straight chained hydrocarbons are biodegraded quite quickly when oxidized by bacteria.
  • Branched chained hydrocarbons persist as ‘tarry’ chunks which are slow to biodegrade and sink to the seabed.

Photo by kind permission of
The Department of
Fisheries and Oceans Canada

What damage does oil do?

  • The ruin areas of aesthetic value such as tourist beaches.
  • On rocky shore they kill filter feeders (barnacles and mussels) and other marine organisms such as crabs and seaweeds. This results in the serious disruption of food chains.
  • On a sandy shore, the oil seeps into the sand and kills it inhabitants by anoxia or suffocation. Again, this seriously disrupts food chains e.g. the wading birds at the top of the food chain may suffer.
  •  Oil covering seabirds causing their death.
  • The detergents used to disperse the oil can often cause harm. They kill bacteria which would naturally decay the oil. They also interfere with the waterproofing surfaces of many marine organisms, which may lead to their death.
  • Loss of jobs – shell-fish can be seriously damaged or the animals made unfit for human consumption.


  • Spray slick with detergents. Not an ideal solution due to the side effects of its use.
  • Spray oil with compounds containing nitrogen and phosphorous. These will encourage bacteria to break down the oil.
  • Booms to contain the slick.
  • Super sponges to soak up oil?  Find out how it might work.


 Global warming


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1.  Read this summary essay.

2. Investigate some well known tanker disasters.
A useful starting point can be found  here
- Prestige 
- Amoco Cadiz 
- Torrey Canyon 
- Braer 
- Sea Empress 
- Erika

Do they all tell the same story?
What are the long-term effects of such disasters?

The Amoco Cadiz, an oil tanker sinks and spills oil into the sea around Brittany in 1978.
The Amoco Cadiz

3. Find out how to treat oiled sea birds