COVID-19 and oil transport: The issue with too much oil
by Grace Chan, oceans & vessels program fellow
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Since the first reported case of COVID-19 in the United States in January 2020, over 2.9 million cases have been confirmed across the country and more than 130,000 people have died. These numbers are heartbreaking and horrifying.
While nothing is as important or concerning as the number of lives lost, it is also clear that the virus is impacting all corners of society. From stay-at-home orders and dining out restrictions, to limits on grocery store purchases and closures of public areas, the virus has impacted almost every industry, likely forever changing the ways that we live and work.
The oil industry is one that COVID-19 may change forever. With travel restrictions and most citizens ordered to stay at home, the overall demand for fuel has been drastically reduced. Prior to the pandemic, oil demand around the world was approximately 100 million barrels per day; now, some estimates say that demand has fallen to approximately 30 million barrels a day.
Though demand had fallen drastically, production of crude oil actually increased in March due to a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Russia. An agreement between the two countries and other oil-producing nations was reached in April to cut production by May 1 in response to the reduced demand. However, the agreement came too late, as storage facilities and refineries of crude oil continue to fill up, turning oil tankers into giant floating storage facilities for approximately 160 million barrels of crude oil. At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, more than 20 oil tankers have congregated at or are anchored just off the coast, three times the amount the port usually saw pre-COVID-19. Now, with the pandemic, on any given day another 10 tankers are either headed to LA/LB or are loitering further off the Pacific coast. At the Ports of New York and New Jersey, the third busiest port in the United States, over 20 oil tankers are anchored. And the Gulf of Mexico is the most disturbing: at the Ports of Houston and Galveston, which house the second largest petrochemical port in the world, over 50 oil tankers are congregated in groups both closer to shore and further out. Dozens more are nearby at Corpus Christie, Port Arthur, and anchored further out in the Gulf of Mexico.
Off California, the Coast Guard has increased patrolling and monitoring of the ships, due to concerns over oil spills and environmental damage from the congregation of stationary vessels. However, when we spoke to Coast Guard personnel in Galveston, they acted as though this is business as usual despite the threat of a strong hurricane season this year.
With hurricane season already underway along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, public concerns are heightened about what these storms, coupled with COVID-19, could mean for the anchored tankers. Typically, large vessels like the oil tankers try to maintain a distance of at least 100 nautical miles from a hurricane’s path. However, oil tankers only reach top speeds of 15-30 miles per hour, and with unpredictable hurricane path changes, it would be difficult for these massive ships – all congregated within the same area just off the coast of highly populated metropolitan centers – to adequately and quickly respond to hurricane predictions.
The environmental damage – let alone the lives lost – from an oil tanker collision, grounding, or sinking because of a hurricane would be catastrophic. On average, each oil tanker can hold approximately 55 million gallons of oil. In comparison, the Deepwater Horizon spill leaked an estimated 133 million gallons of oil over the course of 87 days in 2010, the damage from which can still be seen in marine life and ecosystems throughout the Gulf. Just three oil tankers lost would surpass the oil released from the devastating Deepwater Horizon disaster. The aggregation of dozens of these oil tankers in these major oil ports could cause irreversible damage to our oceans, marine life, fisheries and communities if they were caught in a hurricane and dumped their oil.
We have an opportunity to turn this unexpected and bleak pandemic into a moment for change. If we continue as we do, these types of situations will happen again and cause catastrophic damages, again. By reducing the market for oil by switching to alternative sources of energy, while also ensuring more protections for the environment, we can help prevent damages from oil tankers and spills.