Oil Spills Across the Americas Threaten Precious Ecosystems

A Brazilian volunteer cleans oil at a beach in Lauro de Freitas in Bahia state on Nov. 2nd. Image: Antonello Veneri/AFP

Marine scientists in Brazil are closely monitoring a mysterious oil spill from August that has reached the Abrolhos Bank along the central part of the Brazilian coastline–which is the largest biodiversity hot spot in the South Atlantic Ocean. As Science Magazine explained,

  • More than 4000 tons of crude oil residue from an unknown source have landed on the country’s northeast seaboard since August, contaminating hundreds of beaches, estuaries, reefs, and mangroves along a 2500-kilometer stretch of shoreline.

At the same time, it was revealed last week that the Keystone Pipeline leaked 383,000 gallons of oil in North Dakota–its second big spill in two years. 

Bolsonaro’s Bad Response: A chemical analysis of spilled oil off Brazil’s coast indicated early on that the oil was from Venezuela, but the source of the spill was a complete mystery for the first 2 months. It was later linked to a Greek tanker that denied the claims. However, there was little political will in Brazil to get to the bottom of the story, as Science Mag noted,

  • President Jair Bolsonaro’s government was heavily criticized for not responding quickly or strongly enough to the wave of contamination.
  • Although it eventually deployed ships and troops to help with the cleanup, the administration also tried to blame nongovernmental organizations and left-wing conspirators for the crisis, as it did for massive fires and a rising deforestation rate in the Amazon.

Keystone’s Big Issues: This is certainly not the first spill on the Keystone 1 pipeline: in 2017, a spill exposed 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota. While landowners have been opposed to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, indigenous communities feel as if it threatens their way of life and fails to adhere to historical treaty boundaries.
As CNN reported, the Indigenous Environmental Network, an environmental justice nonprofit group, responded to this most recent spill with concern.

This is exactly the kind of spill we are worried about when it comes to Keystone XL being built. It has never been if a pipeline breaks but rather when,” said Joye Braun, Indigenous Environmental Network frontline community organizer.

Why This Matters: Both of these spills have threatened biodiversity as the Keystone spill impacted a wetland area and the spill in Brazil threatens some of the country’s most iconic marine species, such as the endemic Brazilian brain coral and the endangered blue parrotfish. While oil companies claim that pipelines are safe, the truth is that there’s no spill-proof way to transport oil. In the United States especially, aging pipelines add to the threat of leaks occurring. Oil rail tanker cars, as well as barges and ocean tankers, also come with a very real set of risks. As long as we’re dependent on oil, we’ll keep experiencing oil spills.


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