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Where do oil spills come from?

Coastal Pollution Tutorial

Oil can spill anywhere it is extracted, transported, or used (Credit: NOAA).

Oil can spill anywhere it is extracted, transported, or used (Credit: NOAA). View and print this infographic and see the description below.

Oil can spill anywhere it is drilled, transported, or used. Different places where oil can spill include:

  • Natural seeps of oil: Oil can get into the environment naturally through leaks in subterranean reservoirs through the ocean floor. These are not caused by humans.
  • Extraction of oil: Oil is extracted from the environment by drilling into the ground, including deep in the ocean. When this drilling occurs, oil can leak into the environment. The Deepwater Horizon spill is an example of an oil spill during extraction of oil.
  • Transportation of oil: After it is extracted, oil needs to be transported for refining and end use. Accidents can occur throughout this supply chain, spilling oil from boats, railways, trucks, or other means of transportation. The Exxon Valdez oil spill is an example of a spill during transportation of oil.
  • Use of oil: Many of us use oil every day: to power cars and other vehicles, and to heat homes and buildings. Small or large amounts of oil can spill during use or storage, and even small oil spills can cause harm to the environment.

Infographic Description

The top of this graphic shows a bustling city, including a power plant, several cars driving on a road, and a plane flying overhead, with title text reading “Where do oil spills come from?”

Beneath the city, a small stream of oil drips into the next level of the graphic, which shows the surface of water. There are three pieces to this section.

  • Next to the stream of oil, the text reads “Use of Oil: Anywhere crude oil is stored or used, such as for fuel or in manufacturing, there is risk of a spill.”
  • Next to a tanker ship, surrounded by a faint slick of oil, the text reads: “Transportation of Oil: Crude oil is an international commodity, and as it is moved around the world, it may be spilled from storage tanks, barges, pipelines, and other bulk transport.”
  • Next to an oil rig, the text reads: “Extraction of oil: Oil exploration and extraction from the ground or below the ocean surface potentially could release oil into the environment.”

The bottom of the graphic shows reserves of oil underground, connected by an extraction pipe to the oil rig above. The text here reads: “Natural seeps of oil: Oil seeps are natural leaks of crude oil and gas from subterranean reservoirs through the ocean floor. While not caused by humans, oil from seeps can be confused with oil spills.” A trickle of oil from a natural seep is depicted coming up from the ocean floor opposite the pipe.

Key Takeaway: Oil can be spilled anywhere it is used, transported, or extracted.