Tom MacKenzie, USFWS
The challenge of managing oil spills in the U.S. is increasing in complexity and magnitude. Many people are familiar with the large, catastrophic oil spills of national significance, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill and the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. However, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 70 oil spills occur every day in the country on a smaller basis. The use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has allowed the recovery of oil from tight shale formations across the nation (North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania), resulting in the U.S. becoming the leading oil producing country in the world. With increased production comes the challenge of transporting these materials to refineries and other facilities, on an aging infrastructure. The Department of Transportation reports nearly 1 million shipments of hazardous materials move throughout the U.S. each day by various modes of transportation, including the nation's highways and 140,000-mile freight railroad network that were not originally designed to transport this volume and type of materials. Pipelines are also heavily used, with a large number of these pipelines being nearly 70 years old. Accidents and failures are bound to happen. Spills threaten millions of miles of coastline, river systems, lakes, and terrestrial habitat daily, particularly where there is extensive oil drilling, refining, and transport. Serious, and potentially permanent, ecological damage is possible where chronic spills or spills of national significance occur.
The goal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is to emphasize early (contingency) planning and cooperation at the local, regional, and national level to minimize the injury to fish, wildlife, and sensitive environments from oil or hazardous material spills. The Departments of the Interior, Commerce, and Agriculture, together with tribal governments, states, and other jurisdictions, are responsible for protecting these natural resources. Because spills respect no boundaries, uniform federal policies and programs are essential. In addition, since the resources necessary to respond to spills are limited and vary among the response agencies, it is more important than ever to establish and strengthen cooperative relationships.
The Service is the primary federal agency and trustee responsible for protecting endangered and threatened species; migratory birds; and certain fish, marine mammals, and nesting sea turtles. As a major federal landowner, the agency is also responsible for preparing for and responding to spills that may impact its 97-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System.
Effectively responding to oil spills and hazardous substance releases involves ample preparation, including specialized training, building and maintaining relationships with our partners in the response community, and considerable pre-spill coordination and planning with all parties potentially involved in a response.
While prevention is the Service's top priority, we also ensure our employees are prepared to respond to oil spills and hazardous substance releases when they occur. The Service often supports the EPA (inland spills) and U.S. Coast Guard (coastal spills) – the lead federal spill response agencies – by taking a leading role in wildlife protection during spill response activities. Field staff use a variety of methods to deter wildlife, especially birds, from areas contaminated by oil or a hazardous substance. In addition, field biologists' knowledge of local resources and sensitive ecological areas is invaluable to the managers directing response activities, prioritizing spill countermeasures, and conducting clean-up work. Our expertise is particularly important when wetlands, refuge lands, endangered and threatened species, migratory birds, or the habitat supporting these species are potentially or physically impacted.
Oil spills typically harm wildlife in primary number of ways:
- Oil can coat an animal's fur or feathers, leading to hypothermia and/or a loss of buoyancy in water
- Wildlife can ingest oil directly, ingest oil by eating oiled prey, or inhale oil vapors
- Oiled animals can transfer oil to nesting material or eggs, which can be lethal to young
- Fish, turtles and other aquatic species can be covered in oil and killed
- Oil remnants left in the environment can have long-term effects on the food web, ecosystem functions, and habitat suitability for wildlife
The Service plays another critical role in spill response, working with federal, state, and tribal co-trustees to assess the injuries to natural resources and, when certain conditions apply, pursuing a Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration case to restore injured resources to pre-spill conditions.
The Service is committed to its role as a trustee and partner in conserving the nation's natural resources. Maintaining our spill response capacity and working to prevent or minimize the impact of oil spills and hazardous substance releases and restore affected natural resources is a key element of this commitment.
For all the details, download the Spill Response fact sheet.
Report an inland spill or environmental violation.
Report a coastal spill or environmental violation.
Wildlife and Habitat Conservation
- Conservation Planning