Quiz: What You Don't Know About Oil Spills


Oil from the Gulf spill coats beach sand at the mouth of the Mississippi River, south of Venice, Louisiana. Photograph by Jordan Burke, Bloomberg/Getty Images

You know that the Gulf of Mexico is now the scene of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, but how much do you really know about oil spills?

Why is the orange color of some of the oil a cause for worry?

  • The oil scatters light and produces the color as it moves close to shore.
  • The oil particles have combined with the chemical dispersant.
  • The oil has emulsified with water and increased in volume.
  • The color signals that deep plumes are floating beneath the surface.

Emulsification, which occurs more quickly in heavy wind and waves, significantly increases oil volume and viscosity.

Why hasn’t observation of the water surface yielded an accurate size of the BP spill?

  • The spill is so deep underwater.
  • Chemical dispersants are mixing oil into the water.
  • The physical properties of the oil are changing in the water.
  • All of the above

All of the above are true. Scientists have confirmed that some oil is beneath the water surface, which is believed to be due to a variety of factors.

In the Gulf of Mexico, ultra-deepwater wells like the BP spill site (5,000 feet/1,524 meters or more below the surface) only began to ramp up production in 2004. How much of Gulf oil production came from ultra-deepwater wells in 2009?

  • Less than 10 percent
  • About 25 percent
  • About 33 percent
  • About 75 percent

Ultra-deepwater production ramped up quickly to nearly a third of Gulf of Mexico production by 2009.

Evaporation is a major mechanism for removing petroleum spills. But why would evaporation happen more slowly from the BP spill than from many other spills?

  • Because it is crude oil, not refined gasoline that evaporates easily
  • Because the oil has been mixed with chemical dispersant
  • Because of the rate at which the oil is flowing from the well
  • Because it is coming from a deepwater well

Crude oil directly from a well evaporates less easily than lighter refined products like gasoline.

What is the main action of the chemical dispersants being used?

  • They allow the oil to spread on the surface.
  • They allow the oil to mix with the water.
  • They help the oil to evaporate more readily.
  • They spread the oil on the sea bottom.

The purpose of chemical dispersants is to cause oil to mix into the water column, to reduce the potential that a slick will reach the shore.

What safety measure is required for offshore drilling operations in Norway and Brazil, but not in the United States?

  • Blowout preventers for wells
  • Relief wells drilled at same time as primary wells
  • Oil dispersant on hand
  • Remote-control shut-off systems

Norway and Brazil both require drilling operations to have acoustic remote-control shut-off systems. This has not been required in the United States.

How much oil naturally seeps into the Gulf of Mexico every day, according to the National Research Council?

  • 30,000 barrels
  • 1,300 barrels
  • 13 barrels
  • 3 barrels

About 1,300 barrels naturally seep into the Gulf every day, which is a tiny fraction of the spill rate from the BP site.

Oil spilled from offshore production facilities in the Gulf of Mexico during the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita was equivalent to how many days of flow from the BP spill?

  • A little less than 1 hour
  • A little less than 1 day
  • A little less than 1 month
  • A little less than 1 year

The oil spilled from offshore facilities in 2005 was about 14,676 barrels—less than one day’s flow from the BP site.

How much oil was recovered from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill?]]>

  • 2 percent
  • 14 percent
  • 31 percent
  • 54 percent

Only 14 percent of the Valdez oil was recovered; scientists believe that 50 percent decomposed or biodegraded in the water.]]>

What was the final compensation and damages received per person for the Alaska fisheries and other businesses that sued Exxon over the losses they suffered in the Valdez spill?]]>

  • $3 million
  • $300,000
  • $30,000
  • $3,000

They received $15,000 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 greatly reduced the punitive award.





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