The National Research Council's Oil in the Sea Studies
Travis Hudson, American Geological Institute, 4220 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22302

The April 2010 oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico brought renewed attention to the challenges and risks associated with offshore drilling, particularly in deep water. But oil (or more generally petroleum – hydrocarbon gases, liquids, and in some cases solids) releases to the marine environment have been a concern and subject of study for decades. A leader in helping people understand what is known (and what needs more research) about oil in the sea has been the National Academy of Sciences.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is a nonprofit scientific organization mandated by congress in 1863 to advise the federal government on scientific and technical matters. In 1916, the NAS established the National Research Council (NRC) to associate NAS programs with the broader scientific community. The NRC initiated efforts to better understand marine pollution in the 1970s.

The NRC’s first efforts to understand marine pollution produced the report “Petroleum in the Marine Environment” published in 1975. In 1985, the NRC revisited the subject and incorporated data acquired during the intervening 10 years in “Oil in the Sea: Inputs, Fates, and Effects”.

In 2003 the NRC published their most recent report on the subject, “Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects”. This is an authoritative assessment that everyone can use to better understand where petroleum comes from, where it goes, and what it does in the marine environment. For example, some key findings of the 2003 report include:

• Natural seeps contribute more than 47 million gallons or about 60% of the long term average for all the petroleum released to the North American marine environment each year. Such ongoing releases provide research opportunities for understanding the fate of this petroleum and its effects on ecological systems.

• The effect of petroleum releases depend on complex interactions involving the type of petroleum, the rate of its release, and characteristics of the local physical and biological ecosystems. These factors are commonly more important than the amount of petroleum released.

• There are demonstrable effects of acute oiling events. In habitats such as salt marshes and mangrove forests, the impacts on their biological foundations can make ecosystem recovery exceptionally slow. The report recommends increased protection for such habitats if they are potentially impacted by acute petroleum pollution.

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NASA satellite photograph showing oil slicks from natural seeps in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore Louisiana.

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Closer view of natural oil slicks offshore Louisiana.

Additional Resources:
The interested reader can investigate the NRC report at Oil in the Sea III. Another source of information about petroleum in the environment is AGI's Environmental Awareness Series book Petroleum and the Environment. If you want to investigate environmental issues associated with energy production and use in general, check out Chapter 13 Energy Resources in Living with Earth published by Prentice Hall.

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EarthNote No. 1 , © 2010-2015 American Geosciences Institute,
P. Patrick Leahy, Director, 4220 King Street, Alexandria VA 22302