What Happens to the Oil After an Oil Spill?

Depends how fast you get to it.

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images
U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images
U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

A recovery effort is currently underway to clean up a massive oil slick caused by the explosion of the oil rig Deep Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico last week. The leaking well is gushing more than 1,000 barrels of oil a day into the gulf and has already created a slick covering about 28,600 square miles. The U.S. Coast Guard and oil giant BP -- which had the rig under contract -- are trying to contain the slick before it reaches the coast of Louisiana. But after the recovery workers remove the oil from the water, what do they do with it?

It's largely a matter of speed. As we all learn in science class, oil and water don't mix, and oil will float at the surface. After an oil spill at sea, recovery workers will attempt to contain the slick with booms and remove it with floating skimmers. Given how quickly oil can spread in rough seas, though, this is an extremely difficult process, and only 10 to 15 percent is typically recovered in major maritime spills.

Once oil waste is recovered, it is classified by type. The quality of the waste depends largely on how long the oil has been exposed to sediment and debris in the water. If it is recovered quickly, the oil can be separated from the water and reprocessed. Although it probably won't be sold on the open market, this oil can be burned to power oil refineries, power, stations, cement plants, or brick kilns.

A recovery effort is currently underway to clean up a massive oil slick caused by the explosion of the oil rig Deep Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico last week. The leaking well is gushing more than 1,000 barrels of oil a day into the gulf and has already created a slick covering about 28,600 square miles. The U.S. Coast Guard and oil giant BP — which had the rig under contract — are trying to contain the slick before it reaches the coast of Louisiana. But after the recovery workers remove the oil from the water, what do they do with it?

It’s largely a matter of speed. As we all learn in science class, oil and water don’t mix, and oil will float at the surface. After an oil spill at sea, recovery workers will attempt to contain the slick with booms and remove it with floating skimmers. Given how quickly oil can spread in rough seas, though, this is an extremely difficult process, and only 10 to 15 percent is typically recovered in major maritime spills.

Once oil waste is recovered, it is classified by type. The quality of the waste depends largely on how long the oil has been exposed to sediment and debris in the water. If it is recovered quickly, the oil can be separated from the water and reprocessed. Although it probably won’t be sold on the open market, this oil can be burned to power oil refineries, power, stations, cement plants, or brick kilns.

Oil that’s been in the water too long is typically rendered unusable by salt, sediment, and other materials. This includes oil that washes up on shore, which will usually settle into a tar-like substance on the beach. Such oil generally has to be disposed of in landfills, broken down with chemicals, or just incinerated.

While the collection of oil after a spill typically gets more attention, the disposal of the oil can be just as critical to mitigating environmental damage. Failure to probably segregate oil waste by type at the spill site can lead to thousands of gallons of reusable oil being wasted. Improper disposal or incineration can spread contamination further.

BP has not yet decided on a disposal method for the oil from the Deep Horizon spill, but with more than 35,000 gallons of crude recovered so far, it’s a pretty big mess to clean up.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.