Disaster Mitigation: 4 Oil Spill Responses

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Containment of an oil spill in a large body of waterAlthough the U.S. has been transitioning to cleaner renewable energy such as solar and wind, crude oil is still the dominant energy source. According to 2016 data collected by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), 37 percent of energy consumed in the U.S. was generated by petroleum – a product of crude oil. Because it will be some time before renewable energies wholly replace oil, drilling into the ocean floor will continue.

Oil rigs along the U.S. coast drill and pump oil from deep within the ground to maintain the country’s petroleum reserves for energy consumption. New technology has made drilling safer and more cost-effective, but the risk of an oil spill is still always present. One safety breach, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, can release 4 million barrels of oil into the ocean, which ultimately damages and can kill the ecosystem. One of the most dangerous man-made disasters, oil spills can poison waterways, kill vegetation, and destroy environments and wildlife.

Safety and emergency management professionals from various U.S. agencies work in cooperation to prevent and minimize the damage caused by oil spills. These agencies include: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They rapidly analyze spills and their projected damage, as well as environmental factors such as winds and tides. Then, they respond with the appropriate tools and strategies. Depending on the scenario, the following mitigation methods and equipment may be used.


Booms are floating dividers used for containment and diversion. They can be made of materials like metal or plastic, and are anchored around an oil spill or across waterway entrances. Winds and tides will often enable spilled oil to circumnavigate any man-made dividers that only sit on the water’s surface. This is why booms are specifically designed to sit both above and below the waterline.

Oil spills release large amounts of unrefined oil into the ocean, where it eventually collects on the surface. While oil is heavier than water, it is also less dense, which is why it separates and floats.

Most booms include the upper divider and lower “skirt” that ensure oil remains within the boom. There are other types of booms, such as sorbent and fire booms. Sorbent booms are made of absorbent materials that sponge up oil, but they can’t contain oil for long because they don’t include a skirt. Sorbent booms may be used for smaller spills in calmer waters, instead of in larger, harsher environments. Fire booms are rarely used, and are a part of the in-situ burning method that is explained later in this article.


Collecting and separating oil from water has traditionally been a delicate, time-consuming process. Skimmers – composed of an array of different mechanical devices – are the most preferred method of removing oil from water. To increase cleanup efficiency, oil spill responders use skimmers in tandem with booms to concentrate the oil for collection. They have also been experimenting with various skimmer technologies, analyzing which methods are the most effective. While skimmers work well for their designed purpose, they are limited by their size, by the quantity of oil they can separate and by the speed with which they can operate.

Each skimmer design is sensitive to factors such as debris and rough waters. This is one reason why safety and emergency management professionals are working to design more durable and faster skimmers. Some skimmers use conveyor belts to remove oil into a containment reservoir, while others are suction based. Regardless of the type of skimmer that is used, the retrieved oil is either saved for its initial purpose or appropriately destroyed. During an oil spill, containment and damage control take precedence over any salvaging concerns.


The ocean is a carefully balanced ecosystem with its own defense systems. When spills occur, dispersants assist these natural ocean defenses by helping diffuse the oil. Dispersants are chemicals sprayed onto oil slicks. They help break up, or disperse, the oil into small drops. Then, natural-born microbes in the dispersal agents eat the crude oil and attack it more efficiently. Additionally, the turbulence created by tides and winds helps further dissipate the oil. Dispersants are necessary for the largest spills, and emergency management experts are working toward widening their use.

In-Situ Burning

A rarely used mitigation method, in-situ burning eliminates oil directly from the water as opposed to collecting and containing it. The in-situ method is implemented in the following way. An oil slick is surrounded by fire booms that are made of fire-retardant materials. Then the oil is burned off with as much control as possible. While this burning method is fast and effective, it does come with costs. Plants, aquatic life and land creatures can be consumed by the fire. Also, the oil burning leaves a toxic residue on the water that must be removed before it negatively impacts the environment. Because of these factors, in-situ burns are only used in calm waters that do not have dense plant and animal populations.

Future Oil Spill Mitigation

Oil spills are a common threat to the environment, and just one disaster can impact massive amounts of ocean water. Safety and emergency management professionals at OSHA, the EPA, FEMA, NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard continue to work tirelessly to design and implement more effective response tools and methods. More resilient skimmers are being created, boom containment is being improved, and safer dispersants are being researched. The nation’s universities are also joining the fight, offering safety and emergency management classes to young professionals who have a passion for protecting the environment. With all these efforts in place, oil spills will hopefully causes less and less damage to our natural world, and ultimately be a thing of the past.

Learn More

Earning a master’s in emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University can help you increase your knowledge of the safety industry and demonstrate a continued commitment to learning and leadership. Whether you aspire to work at the governmental level or move into the private sector, our distinguished faculty of safety professionals delivers a comprehensive curriculum that can translate wherever safety matters most.

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