Ocean oil pollution is growing — and not from oil spills

Oil spills may be dramatic and devastating, but they’re not the biggest contributor to ocean oil pollution — not by a long shot.

A report released Wednesday gives that distinction to fossil fuel runoff from highways, parking lots, and other land-based infrastructure, mostly transportation related. According to the report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Oil in the Sea,” these sources are by far the largest and fastest-growing contributor to ocean oil pollution. At some 1.2 million metric tons per year — a very rough estimate, given large data gaps — the amount of oil that gets transferred from land to sea is at least an order of magnitude larger than the amount from any other source.

“When you look at this ‘consumption’ number, it overshadows all the others,” Victoria Broje, a principal emergency management specialist for Shell and one of the report’s authors, told reporters at a media event on Wednesday. The report was co-sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, a fossil fuel industry trade group, in addition to federal agencies from the U.S. and Canada.

The report builds on decades of previous research from the National Academies — a federally chartered research organization — that highlights the growing risk of oil pollution in the world’s oceans. Since the previous edition of Oil in the Sea was published in 2002, the organization says land-based sources of ocean oil pollution have swelled up to 20 times larger — driven in part by population growth and increased motor vehicle use.

Greater use of petroleum-based fertilizer chemicals, deicing compounds, and trash laced with petroleum products like printer ink are also adding to ocean oil pollution, the National Academies said. (Plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, were not considered in the report although they are a major contributor to ocean pollution.) In most cases, the oil is transported by water — it mixes with stormwater drainage systems, streams, rivers, lakes, and groundwater reservoirs and ultimately gets carried to the sea. Once in the ocean, even low concentrations of oil can jeopardize marine ecosystems over time, impairing animals’ ability to move, breathe, grow, and eat. Higher exposure rates can cause “mass mortalities” across species. 09-29-22

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