Small Oil Spills in Gulf Are Maybe Not So Small

Posted by on February 1, 2013 in Blog, Coastal Resilience | 0 comments

Coast Guard photo - overflight of LA oil spillBy studying satellite data, researchers have found that oil spills in the northern Gulf of Mexico are frequently larger than what is reported. The journal Nature reported on the results of the study this past week  and it follows on similar findings published in Nature almost two years ago.

Under federal law, oil spills, even very small ones, are required to be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard. As part of the reporting, the size of the spill is supposed to be estimated. Researchers found that spills are indeed being reported, but the size of the spill is frequently and often wildly underestimated. Researcher Ian MacDonald tells Nature, “There is very consistent underreporting of the magnitude of [oil] releases. Sometimes it’s quite laughable.”

Although there are significant penalties, including criminal penalties, for failing to report an oil spill, there do not seem to be serious legal consequences for underestimating the size of a spill. Generally, companies are financially responsible for spills according to the number of gallons spilled, but very small spills do not generally get prosecuted by U.S. agencies.

(Hat tip to Gulf Restoration Network for bringing the study to our attention.)

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