FP Explainer

What Happens to the Oil After an Oil Spill?

Depends how fast you get to it.

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.

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.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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