Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Today, we’re talking about oil spills. You might remember big spills like Exxon Valdez in 1989 and Deepwater Horizon in 2010, but even today, oil spills still happen. That makes us wonder: what have we learned from them over time?

Here to tell us more is Fatima Husain from our Possibly team. Hello and welcome back,, Fatima! 

Fatima Husain: Hello, Megan! 

Megan Hall: So, Fatima, to start us off: what exactly is an oil spill?

Fatima Husain: An oil spill is an unexpected or accidental release of oil into its surrounding environment. Spills can happen when oil is being drilled, transported, or used for energy. 

Megan Hall: So, basically: wherever there’s oil collected someplace, a spill is possible?

Fatima Husain: Essentially. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, thousands of spills happen each year in U.S. waters, but most are pretty small and release less than a barrel’s worth, so less than about 40 gallons. The spills you can name by memory — the big ones — released hundreds of thousands of barrels. 

Megan Hall: Wow! That’s a lot! What have we learned from all of these spills?

Fatima Husain: To find out, I reached out to a colleague of mine who has worked on oil spills for decades. 

Chris Reddy: My name is Chris Reddy. I'm a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. 

Fatima Husain: Chris is a born-and-raised Rhode Islander. He got his start working on oil spills while he was a graduate student at URI’s School of Oceanography. 

Chris Reddy: My first oil spill was the North Cape oil spill, which happened at Moonstone Beach and spilled diesel fuel in January 1996. 

Fatima Husain: North Cape was one of the largest oil spills in Rhode Island’s history —it released over 800,000 barrels of home heating oil. And since then, Chris has seen a decrease in major oil spills. 

Chris Reddy: The incidence and the volume of oil that has spilled has dropped dramatically since 1990.

Megan Hall: What happened? 

Fatima Husain: Well, a year after the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act. The law describes how spills are managed and, importantly, who is responsible for cleaning them up and paying for the damages. Can you guess who the responsible party is in an oil spill? 

Megan Hall: I mean, I’d assume it’s the person who’s doing the spilling?

Fatima Husain: That’s correct — and it costs a lot of money to respond to an oil spill. Chris says they’re

Chris Reddy: Bad for business — for everybody — and so there's a certain need to make sure that doesn't happen again.

Megan Hall: Got it —but when spills do happen, what have we learned about how to clean them up quickly and effectively?

Fatima Husain: Chris says, it depends on a lot of factors, but the most important things are…

Chris Reddy: Logistics and infrastructure. And it's very difficult to fight an oil spill when the nearest base or port is hundreds of miles away. 

Megan Hall: And what sort of infrastructure do we need to fight these spills? 

Fatima Husain: Chris says —

Chris Reddy: Fighting oil spills is no different than many other battles and war. When you have, accurate charts, cell phone coverage, satellite imagery, better training, all these capacities, then when you have this uninvited guest, you can kick it out the door as fast as possible.

Fatima Husain: And if we want to avoid seeing long-term effects on marine and coastal life, we have to make sure those clean-ups are thorough and comprehensive. 

Megan Hall: That makes sense. Speaking of the future — should I be bracing for news of the next big spill? 

Fatima Husain: While big spills are getting rarer, the United States just set records for crude oil production and petroleum ex-ports, so we can’t say with certainty that another spill isn’t in our future. At least, until we manage to stop using oil at all. 

Megan Hall: Got it! Thanks, Fatima! 

To learn more about Chris’s research on oil spills, you can check out his new book, Communication in a Crisis: An Insider’s Guide.

Possibly is a co-production of Brown University's Institute for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.