Oil Pollution

An oiled spoonbill takes refuge on an oil boom in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, July 2010. Photo by Mike Parr, ABC

An oiled Spoonbill takes refuge on an oil boom in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, July 2010. Photo by Mike Parr, ABC


The Challenge

The impact to birds and their habitats from oil is one of the best known threats to birds, but one that only reaches the public conciousness periodically during catastrophic spill such as the Exxon Valdez, and more recently, the Deepwater Horizon spills. Oil and other petrochemicals are directly toxic to birds. Because oil floats on the surface of water, seabirds are particularly vulnerable. Oiled birds are unable to keep warm as their feathers become waterlogged, and die of hypothermia as a result. The risk to birds is greatest where there are large concentrations of seabirds and shorebirds occur near major oil tanker routes, pipelines, or drilling rigs. These include the Gulf of Mexico, San Fransisco Bay, Delaware Bay, and Gulf of Alaska, among others.


ABC Conservation Framework

Efforts to limit the impact of oil on birds fall under the Eliminating Threats section of ABC's Conservation Framework
pyramid icon threats


Primary Birds Impacted

Seabirds including pelicans, gulls, and terns; shorebirds such as Piping Plovers; marsh and wading birds such as egrets, herons, and spoonbills



To prevent oil tanker disasters such as the Exxon Valdez, all tankers should be double-hulled. The 1990 Oil Pollution Act calls for all U.S. vessels to be double-hulled by 2015. U.S. Coast Guard regulations require all tankers operating within U.S. coastal waters to be double-hulled by 2011. Despite the 25% additional cost of a double-hulled vessel (at an average price of $125,000,000), Conoco states that “The environmental and economic benefits of double-hulled tankers far exceed their additional costs”. Citing a 1997 incident in which a 400 square foot gash was ripped in the side of Conoco’s double-hulled tanker “Guardian” by a third-party barge while entering the Port of Lake Charles, Louisiana, Conoco CEO, Archie Dunham said “the inner hull was undamaged and not a single drop of the ship’s crude oil cargo was lost. The U.S. Coast Guard later estimated the potential environmental and economic impact on the port could have run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Cross section diagram of a single-hulled tankerDiagram showing the difference between single- and double-hulled tankers



Workers from the Interneational Bird Rescue Center clean an oiled heron during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, July 2010. Photo by Mike Parr The 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill resulted from insufficient regulation, minimal enforcement of existing regulations, and an industry complacency that assumed because the past deepwater drilling record was so good, nothing would ever go wrong. Adequate regulations must be put in place to govern drilling operations and a body tasked with overseeing operations and enforcing those regulations. Environmental experts must be given a seat at the table equal to those of economists and industry advocates to ensure that the environment is adequately protected from future drilling operations.





Workers from the Interneational Bird Rescue Center clean an oiled heron during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, July 2010. Photo by Mike Parr



ABC Results

ABC Results Button During the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, ABC acted as an hub for information of the status of the spill and the potential impacts to birds and key habitats along the Gulf Coast.
ABC Results Button In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon spill, ABC produced the report titled The Gulf Oil Spill, Field Survey and Recommendations, which detailed the observations of the ABC team during the spill and provided a series of clear recommendations on how to prevent a similar event and be better prepared should one ever occur again. Download the report here.
ABC Results Button ABC has testified before Congress on the causes behind the Gulf spill, the threat to birds, and future prevention efforts.


What Next?

What Next Button Ensure that common-sense regulations are put in place for offshore drilling operations and that laws are enforced to prevent another disaster like Deepwater Horizon. Ensure that emergency response plans are properly reviewed to avoid the egregious errors and
What Next Button Prosecute fully under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act all mortality of birds in oil pits/tanks, and develop new laws that require such pits to be covered.
What Next Button Restrict the development of oil near Important Bird Areas - for example along the Gulf Coast and off the coast of Alaska where numerous species such as the WatchListed Yellow-billed Loon breed and are susceptible to disturbance on their nesting lakes.

Take Action

Ensure your car, motorbike, boat, or RV does not leak oil and properly dispose of oil. Reduce your gasoline (and therefore oil) consumption by improving your automobile's mileage efficiency through regular tune-ups and by ensuring that your tires are correctly inflated. Use public transport whenever possible or walk or ride public transport.


In the event of an oil spill near you, volunteer with a local rescue center to care for birds and help clean up beaches (special training may be required).