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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Natural Disaster


Government Figures: A History of Gulf Oil Spills

June 8, 2010 - 1:04 PM | by: Steve Centanni

While the Deepwater Explorer blowout and leak is expected to be the worst offshore oil catastrophe in U.S. history, the federal government documented 330 oil spills related to offshore drilling between 1964 and 2009. A total of 550,500 barrels of oil were spilled (23,121,000 gallons), mostly in the Gulf of Mexico, from a variety of causes including weather, equipment failure, human error and blowouts.

The information comes from a “Summary of OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) Spills” on the website of the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

The summary further divides these accidents into spills of 1–thousand barrels or greater. There were 46 of these “medium” and “major” spills in the same 35 year period, with 495, 284 barrels lost (20,801,928 gallons). Eight of these spills were caused by blowouts and eight reached shore. Hurricanes are a very common cause of oil spills. Hurricanes caused 15 of these larger spills (many resulting from Hurricane Katrina), and many more that were smaller than 1-thousand barrels.

As for injuries and fatalities, there were two particularly deadly accidents in the period covered by these statistics. In May of 1970, 11 miles off the Louisiana coast, the Chambers and Kennedy Platform A exploded and burned in 58 feet of water, killing 9 workers. Human error was listed as the cause. 100 barrels were spilled.

In December of that same year, a blowout, explosion and fire on a Shell Oil platform in Louisiana killed 4 people and injured 36 others. 53-thousand barrels of crude and refined petroleum spilled into the gulf and reached the coastline 17 miles away.

One of the worst accidents in U.S. waters was the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. 80- to 100-thousand barrels of oil, from a Union Oil Company well, spilled onto California beaches over a 10 day period. MMS lists the cause as equipment failure and human error.

That spill prompted a Congressional moratorium in 1981 on new offshore oil leasing, with exceptions in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, that remained in effect until 2008 when Congress did not renew it.

And the MMS statistics would not show a mammoth blowout in Mexican waters which, until now, was the biggest oil catastrophe on record. Pemex, the Mexican national oil company, suffered a blowout in its Ixtoc well 150 feet below the Bay of Campeche (part of the Gulf of Mexico) in 1979. The undersea leak continued for 290 days before it was finally capped.

And the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 is also not part of these statistics, which cover only offshore drilling activity. 11 million gallons of crude spilled onto the sensitive shoreline of Prince William Sound when the ship struck a submerged reef.

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