Oil spills and natural seepage are an ongoing part of dependency on Fossil fuels. It has been said that half of oil extrusion is natural and from little known seepage processes. These, however are slow and life has an ability to adapt to the oil seepage and to make the most use of it.
Of the anthropogenic causes, most of them are said to be from human dependency on oil which leads to the extraction, transport, refining, storage and waste from refined oil products. There are human causes that lead to collisions and human errors or malfeasance concerning oil extraction rigs, tankers and other operations. And there are natural conditions, such as rough seas, hurricanes and unexpected well blowouts.
For the tanker movement of oil, there are several major improvements: the requirement for double hulls, which will be mandatory in the US by 2015, is one. Improved Global Positioning Systems (GPS), are helping with collisions and groundings. There are also safety programs, audits and inspections, with accompanying paperwork that certifies whether a tanker and its operators are in compliance with established regulations and procedures.
The problem with tanker movement is the ways in which humans get around the requirements, manage to make mistakes, and even engage in willful criminal activity to avoid compliance with the regulations and procedures. One way of avoiding being responsible is to fly under flags of countries that have poor or no true compliance requirements. While major nations will refuse to allow access to their ports, there are still many places in the world that will allow access by poorly regulated tankers.
Oil extraction and refinery operations are highly complex, technical and vulnerable operations. There are components to a barrel of oil or an undersea cache of oil that can behave in completely unexpected ways, not to mention natural and human threats to the rigs from failure or inability to follow proper procedures, weather, earthquake and rough seas.
There are ongoing programs to ensure that safety training, auditing, inspection and procedural improvements are constantly of the best quality. There is equipment that can seal or stop the flow of oil as a last chance measure, such as explosives or valves that are triggered in various ways, but these are only good if they can be used or are installed.
The problem with depending on humans to flip a switch is that humans might not be alive or available to do so. In the BP oil spill of 2010, even a “dead man” backup switch, which was not supposed to require human action did not work. A last chance acoustic actuator was never installed, which begs the question of whether it would have worked or not.
As a result, future oil spills can be prevented in ways that greatly reduce the number and magnitude of events, but getting the oil companies, individuals, and others to support those ways is another story. In spite of record profits, the industries have interfered with, lobbied and fought for as much self regulation and avoidance of investment as possible, while the public was unaware of the situation. This made the BP disaster an accident that was just waiting to happen.
The ultimate prevention is to prohibit drilling and extraction anywhere near land and to require double hulls before a tanker is allowed within a certain distance of land, and to reduce dependence on fossil fuels that have to be transported by water by as much as possible.