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Oil and Gas Industry: A Research Guide

Oil Spills and Gas Leaks

Spills and leaks can be classified in a number of ways: natural leaks, daily human leaks, drilling blowouts, deliberate spills, transportation leaks, daily spills (small spills), tanker accidents (large spills), and unchecked leaks. The U.S. Coast Guard responds to oil spills offshore while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) responds to oil spills onshore.1 After the Clean Water Restoration Act of 1966 but before the creation of the EPA in 1970, the Secretary of Interior was responsible for responding to onshore oil incidents. Prior to 1966, it fell under the purview of the Secretary of Army.2 Currently, a variety of agencies are responsible for oil spill prevention, depending on the potential source of the oil spill, and include the U.S. Coast Guard, the EPA, the Department of Transportation, and Department of Interior.3

Historically, an oil geyser shooting up to the sky indicated a successful exploration drill, which we would now consider a drilling blowout incident. One of the earliest major U.S. oil spills was the Santa Rita tanker in San Francisco Bay in 1907.4 During World War II, public concern about oil leaks from sinking tanks increased when the oil started reaching beaches on the coast of the United States.5 The 1967 oil tanker spill Torrey Canyon changed government response: In the U.S., President Lyndon B. Johnson directed the Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Transportation to investigate preventing other major oil pollution incidents, which resulted in the Oil Pollution -- A Report to the President,6 and the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP).7 Globally, the incident prompted the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage of 1969 and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships of 1973.8

The largest oil spill happened in January 1991, during the Gulf War, when oil wells and tankers in Kuwait were destroyed.9 Deepwater Horizon in 2010 was the largest U.S. oil spill, where a BP pipeline leaked, an oil rig exploded, and 11 people were killed.10 Fergana Valley (Mingbulak) oil spill is the largest inland spill, occurring in 1992 in Uzbekistan when a blowout of crude oil burned for two months.11

Oil Spill Cleanup Companies and Products

The Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) is a non-profit, U.S. Coast Guard classified oil spill removal organization, and the largest oil spill response company in the United States. It was created in 1990 after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and is funded by the Marine Preservation Association (MPA). MSRC's resources and services can be used by companies who are members of the MPA, and it has contracts with the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of California.12 The National Response Corporation (NRC) is a commercial oil spill removal organization, the largest worldwide, with international locations. To find other companies, contractors, and products involved in cleaning up oil spills, catalogs and directories are good sources to use; they provide contact information and product descriptions. The EPA approves and publishes a schedule of chemicals that can be used to break down petroleum in the event of an oil spill (called dispersants), and other oil spill mitigating devices. They also give directions for manufacturers to submit proposed dispersants to the list.13 Patent searches for "oil spill" show devices, chemical agents and compounds, and processes developed for oil spill cleanup. Patent information includes the inventor name and the assignee, or organization, many of which are oil or chemical manufacturing companies.

Oil Spill Statistics

A number of companies, nonprofit environmental organizations, and government agencies track oil spills and gas leaks, although most data records are from 1970s to present. Earlier information on oil and gas pollution was tracked by different government agencies, but because our understanding of and responses to oil spills and gas emissions has shifted, what kinds of information and how it was tracked have changed. Good sources for historical information are newspapers, congressional records, and government agency publications. "Oil pollution" is a useful phrase for searching for publications pre-1970. For more information on specific accidents, search the name of the incident in library catalogs, article databases, and websites.

Related Resources

The following materials link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are provided when available.

The following materials link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are provided when available.

Search historical databases for news and magazine articles on oil pollution.

The subscription resources marked with a padlock are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress. If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library. For historical research, in addition to these database listed below, explore the databases listed in the history section resources within this guide.

Search for print publications in the early 20th century by state agency or association to find reports on oil pollution in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. For example:

Use the Congressional Record to find discussions around oil pollution. For example, the discussion and testimonies around the 1924 Oil Pollution Prevention Act appear in pages 1039-1045 of the Congressional Record (bound), volume 65, part 2 (January 16, 1924 to February 7, 1924).


  1. Oil Spills: Background and Governance, (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Sept. 15, 2017), 3. Back to text
  2. Stanley E. Degler, Oil Pollution: Problems and Policies, (Washington: BNA Books, 1969). Back to text
  3. Oil Spills: Background and Governance, (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Sept. 15, 2017), 24.Back to text
  4. Marshall Sittig, Oil Spill Prevention and Removal Handbook (Park Ridge, N.J.: Noyes Data Corp., 1974). Back to text
  5. Degler, Oil Pollution: Problems and Policies, 4; "Beach Pollution by Oil Protested: Moses, as Head of State Park Body, Asks the Coast Guard to Prevent Sea Dumpings." New York Times, Jun 24, 1948;Back to text
  6. Degler, Oil Pollution: Problems and Policies, 4.Back to text
  7. Environmental Protection Agency, "National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP) Overview,". Back to text
  8. International Maritime Organization, "Background," External. Back to text
  9. NOAA, "Arabian Gulf Spills," Incident News. Back to text
  10. "Gulf Oil Spill," External Smithsonian. Back to text
  11. John P. Rafferty, "9 of the Biggest Oil Spills in History," External Encyclopaedia Britannica. Back to text
  12. Marine Spill Response Corporation, "Frequently Asked Questions," External to text
  13. Environmental Protection Agency, "Dispersing Agents," Back to text