Oils (hydrocarbons)


Hydrocarbons are organic compounds containing carbon and hydrogen and found in crude oil and natural gas. Hydrocarbons are formed from the remains of marine animals and plants that lived in shallow inland seas, died, and drifted to the bottom. The term petroleum is used as a common denotation for crude oil (mineral oil) and natural gas, i.e., the hydrocarbons from which various oil and gas products are made. Petroleum is a collective term for hydrocarbons, whether solid, liquid or gaseous (http://oils.gpa.unep.org/).


Oil discharges to the marine environment may occur from natural seeps, ocean-based and land-based sources. Examples of ocean-based discharges are oil spills from ships/tankers and offshore platforms and pipelines. Examples of land-based sources are untreated sewage and storm water, rivers, coastal industries, coastal refineries, oil storage facilities, oil terminals and reception facilities. Hydrocarbons can also enter the marine environment as gaseous air pollutants from vapor derived from loading and unloading of oil (http://oils.gpa.unep.org/).



Oil spills can have serious negative environmental and socio-economical impacts.  Marine and coastal habitats, wildlife species, recreational activities and fisheries, are among the resources and sectors that can be negatively affected by oil spills (http://oils.gpa.unep.org/). The oil harms the wildlife in two main ways; through toxic contamination (inhalation or ingestion) or by physical contact.


  • Sea birds spend much of their time on or near bodies of water. This makes them vulnerable to oil spills and they can suffer from hypothermia because the oil destroys the structure of their protective layer of feathers and insulating down; drowning  due to their  increased weight when oil covers their bodies; poisoning through ingestion or inhalation; and loss of flight, which could affect their reproductive capacity.


  • Marine mammals, including manatees, dolphins, porpoises, and whales are also very vulnerable to oil spills because of their amphibious habits and their dependence on air. The consequences of exposure to oil may include; hypothermia, poisoning from ingestion of oil, congested lungs and damaged airways; and gastrointestinal ulceration and hemorrhaging. 


  • Fish can absorb oil that is dissolved in water though their gills, accumulating it within the liver, stomach, and gall bladder. Although they are able to cleanse themselves of contaminants within weeks of exposure, there may be a period when they are unfit for human consumption.


  • Sea turtles can be affected when oil enters their eyes and damages airways and/or lungs; from poisoning by absorption through the skin; through the ingestion of contaminated food; and from contamination of the nesting sites, eggs and newly hatched turtles.


Oil spills also affect the coastal environment and habitats. Coral reefs and the marine organisms, in particular juvenile organisms that live within and around the reefs are at risk from exposure to the toxic substances within oil as well as from smothering. At beaches oil can soak into sand and gravel. Coating on the roots of mangrove trees can kill the trees and marsh grasses, and seagrasses are also affected.

Negative socio-economic impacts include decreased tourism and the closure of recreational, fishing and shellfish areas.  Boats and fishing gear may be damaged and human health can also be affected through direct contact or inhalation of the oil or by eating contaminated seafood.

It may take several years or even decades, before an area or ecosystem has fully recovered from a major oil spill (http://oils.gpa.unep.org/).


Global versus Caribbean Studies on Oil

The Wider Caribbean region is one of the largest oil producing areas of the world with a production of approximately 12.3 million barrels per day in 2006 (OPEC 2006). The countries with the highest production in the area are the United States of America with 5.1 million barrels per day, Mexico 3.2 million barrels per day, Venezuela 3.1 million barrels per day, Colombia 0.54 million barrels and Trinidad and Tobago 0.15 million barrels. There are approximately 100 oil refineries in the Wider Caribbean region with a processing capacity of more than 500 million tonnes of oil per year. 75% of these refineries operate on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico (UNEP et al 2004). According to ITOPF (2003) Venezuela holds the western hemisphere’s largest oil reserves and one of its largest refining systems.

In a global report published by the International Maritime organization (IMO) et al (2007), the total average input of oil per year from ocean-based sources was estimated to be 1.27 million tonnes/year. The estimate for 1981 was 3.2 million tonnes/year and in 1990 2.35 million tonnes /year respectively.  These older estimates represent discharges from both ocean and land-based sources (IMO et al 1993).

Oil extracting countries within the region refine their crude oil or transport it through a complex shipping network resulting in a high risk for oil spills in many parts of the Caribbean See figure1. The movement of oil is dominated by crude oil and oil product imports to the USA (ITOPF 2003). According to Botello (2000) oil tankers transport an average of 5 million barrels of crude oil per day in the Wider Caribbean Region.


Figure 1:  Major oil routes and oil spills in the Wider Caribbean region (The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited ITOPF 1996)

oil-routes.gifThe main risk areas for oil spills from ships are at the passages where the density of traffic is particularly high. The busiest passages are through the Yucatan Channel, the Bahamas Channel and the Florida Strait (ITOPF 2003). According to GESAMP 2007, there are an estimated 250 oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea annually. The world’s largest ever tanker spill occurred off Trinidad and Tobago in 1979 when two tankers collided and 287 000 tonnes of crude oil was discharged to the sea  (ITOPF 2003). Additionally the second largest oil spill in history occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, also in 1979, during a blowout of  Ixtoc I an exploratory oil well, spilling 454 000- 480 000 tons of crude oil into the marine environment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ixtoc_I). Recent large oil spills include the Mega Borg tanker explosion in 1990 off Texas, USA, spilling 17 000 tonnes, the barge Morris J. Berman in 1994 spilling approximately 3.7 million litres off Punta Escambrón in San Juan, Puerto Rico and in 1996 a tanker exploded in Veracruz Mexico, while unloading oil resulting in a spill of nearly 36 000 tonnes (GESAMP 2007).

According to the 2004 study “GIWA Regional Assessment 3a for the Caribbean Small Island subsystem”, thousands of large vessels transporting oil, gas, and chemicals pass between the Small Islands annually resulting in high risks for oil and chemical spills. Trinidad and Tobago, because of its petroleum-based industry, is at very high risk.  The last major oil spill in Trinidad and Tobago occurred in 2000. These spills have had short-term damaging impacts on the coastlines, particularly within the Gulf of Paria. There are also reports of tar balls located on the beaches of the Cayman Islands and Curaçao, and at the Barlovento beaches of Barbados. Grenada, Dominica and Saint Lucia among others (UNEP 1999, I did a per on this as well published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin which I can track fown a reference for).

According to the 2006 “GIWA Regional Assessment 3b and 3c for Colombia, Venezuela, Central America and Mexico”, oil spills are considered to be the worst pollution issue in this sub-region. In Cartagena Bay (Colombia), petroleum exploration, extraction, refining and spills from ships represent 80% of the total petroleum discharged in the region (INVEMAR 2001). The pH of the soils and water of the Orinoco River Delta (Venezuela) has changed due to oil pollution, causing severe deterioration in the health of the mangroves (RAN 2003). In the Catatumbo River Basin, there are continuous oil spills as a result of pipeline sabotage. In November 2002, 5 000 barrels were spilled after an explosion at the border between Colombia and the Zulia State in Venezuela (Rosillon 2002).

Oil spills in Central America and Mexico also have severe environmental impacts. Such spills occur primarily in the Panama Canal where approximately 13 000 ships and 70 million tonnes of oil pass through each year. At the only refinery in Panama, there have been two major oil spills. The largest was in 1986 when 8 million liters of raw petroleum was released into Bahía Las Minas (Jackson 1989), affecting 8 km of coast and causing mangrove and coral reef mortality. Another potential site where oil spills or leakage could occur is were the oil pipeline traverses the transboundary basins from Honduras to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.

According to the 2004 “GIWA Regional Assessment 4 for the Islands of the Greater Antilles”, about 160 million liters of oil are transported on the waters of this sub-region daily and around 50 000 ships frequent the Caribbean waters every year. Therefore, the risk of major oil spills in this sub-region is also very high a severe impact to the region is enormous due to the busy shipping lanes, particularly through the Old Bahamas Channel (UNEP 1999b). Studies further show that tar balls can be found on beaches of Cuba, Puerto Rico and in the Bahamas, which is mostly the product of oil tankers discharging residuals when cleaning at sea (BEST 2002).


Laws, Regulations, and Policy Responses on Oil

Land based and ocean based oil pollution is regulated in many different frameworks ranging from regional legislation, international non-binding and binding agreements, action plans and national legislation and regulations.

A major regional framework is the Caribbean Action Plan and the Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP).

The most important regional legal framework in the Wider Caribbean Region is the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region (Cartagena Convention). The Convention entered into force in 1986 and is a legally binding, regional multilateral environmental agreement for the protection and development of the WCR. The Cartagena Convention deals with oil-related issues through the Protocol Concerning Co-Operation in Combating Oil Spills in the Wider Caribbean Region (Oil Spills Protocol) and the Protocol Concerning Pollution from Land-Based Sources and Activities (LBS Protocol).

The objective of the Oil Spills Protocol is to strengthen national and regional preparedness and response capacity to oil spills. The Protocol also serves to foster and facilitate co-operation and mutual assistance among the nations and territories in cases of emergency in order to prevent and control major oil spill incidents. All Caribbean countries, except the Bahamas, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras and Suriname have ratified or acceded to the Oil Spills Protocol (this to be confirmed shortly). The Regional Marine Pollution Emergency, Information and Training Centre Wider Caribbean (RAC/REMPEITC-Caribe) is the Regional Activity Centre established under the Oil Spill Protocol. The centre is based in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles with the objectives to strengthen national and regional preparedness and response of the countries in the Wider Caribbean Region and to foster and facilitate co-operation and assistance in cases of emergency in order to prevent, control and combat major oil spill incidents. Another objective is to strengthen the operational effectiveness of the implementation of the Catagena Oil Spill Protocol and the Caribbean Islands Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response Co-operation (OPRC).  All islands are parties to the Caribbean Islands OPRC Plan, allowing a regional approach and mutual assistance in the event of serious spills which exceed the response capability of individual governments or local oil industry.  The Caribbean Islands OPRC Plan provides general criteria for oil pollution response, such as the use of dispersants, which may be applied when spill response policy is not otherwise specified in national contingency plans (ITOPF 2003).

The LBS Protocol sets forward general obligations and a legal framework for regional co-operation, provides a list of priority source categories, activities and associated pollutants of concern and promotes the establishment of pollution standards and schedules for implementation. Crude petroleum and hydrocarbons, as well as used lubricating oils are primary pollutants of concern (Annex I), and effluent limitations in domestic wastewaters for fats, oil and grease (Annex III) are set to 15 mg/l for Class I Waters (particularly sensitive to impacts from pollution) and to 50 mg/l for Class II Waters (less sensitive to impacts from pollution).

The Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) has developed a regional Used Oil Strategy and much work is ongoing on oil spill contingency planning both at the national and regional levels.

A review of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) has shown that more than 100 Conventions hold some relevance to the Caribbean, (Caribbean Law Institute 1998). The following International Conventions deal with oil pollution;

  • CLOPD: International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage;
  • MARPOL 73/78: International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships;
  • UNCLOS: Convention on the law of the Sea;
  • SOLAS: International Convention for the Safety of life at sea;
  • London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and other Matter;
  • Intervention Convention relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties;
  • International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds (IOPC Funds), 1971-1992;
  • CLC: International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage;
  • OPRC: International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation;


Many Caribbean countries have not ratified the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL 73/78). In spite of regulations established in Annex I of MARPOL, tankers and barges do not always use port facilities for the disposal of bilge and tank washing and wastes, discharging significant quantities of oil into the coastal areas of the Wider Caribbean Region (UNEP/CEP 2000).


Important global action plans are;

  • The Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA) is a programme that provides guidance for sustainable development of oceans and seas and their resources. Read more at http://www.gpa.unep.org/.






  • The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are eight goals to be achieved by 2015 that respond to the world's main development challenges. Read more at http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/.


What is the Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP) doing?

The following recent projects and activities were conducted by CEP to protect the marine environment and are related to control, reduce and prevent pollution by oil from both land-and ocean-based sources:

  • CEP actively promotes accession/ratification of the LBS Protocol and the Oils Spills Protocol.
  • National Promotional workshops for the LBS Protocol have been convened in several countries, and as a result of this, the Governments of France and Saint Lucia ratified the Protocol in 2007 and 2008 respectively bringing the total number of Contracting Parties to four, including Panama and Trinidad & Tobago.
  • The CEP in collaboration with the UNEP GPA has assisted in facilitating the development and implementation of National Programmes of Action (NPAs) for the prevention of pollution from land based sources and activities.  Direct support was provided to completion of these plans in Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados.
  • CEP provided support to the Regional Activity Center / Regional Marine Pollution Emergency, Information and Training Center - Wider Caribbean (RAC/REMPEITC-Carib) to convene a workshop for the development of a Regional Cooperation Mechanism for Response to Oils Spills that will be completed in 2008.  This workshop will evaluate and seek to improve the regional oil spill contingency plan for the Caribbean Islands.
  • RAC/REMPEITC-Carib continues to provide capacity building, training and support to facilitate the implementation of the Oil Spills Protocol of the Cartagena Convention and to reduce the incidences and impacts of oil spills in the region. RAC/REMPEITC accomplishes this by conducting several oil spill response training courses throughout the region and by assisting countries in their development of their National Contingency Plans.
  • The CEP continues to collaborate closely with the Secretariat for the Basel Convention on the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes within the framework of a Memorandum of Cooperation.  Support has been provided to prepare a Regional Used Lead Acid Battery Strategy and a Draft Regional Used Oil Management Strategy which were reviewed and approved by participating countries.
  • The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations Regional Coordinating Unit for the CEP (UNEP CAR/RCU) and RAC/REMPEITC-Carib have hosted five pollution prevention seminars in Saint Lucia, Barbados, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Antigua and Barbuda on the ratification and implementation of MARPOL Annex V. RAC/REMPEITC continues to work with the Caribbean and Central American countries to bring the “Special Area” provisions of MARPOL Annex V into effect.
  • The GEF funded project “Integrating Watershed and Coastal Areas Management (IWCAM) for Caribbean Small Island Developing States (SIDS)” supports legislative and policy reform at the island states level, capacity building to implement those reforms, and demonstration projects on key issues facing individual states.
  • As a Co-Chair of the White Water to Blue Water (WW2BW) Partnership Initiative, the CEP continues to develop partnerships that would enhance integrated approaches in Environmentally Sound Marine Transport in the WCR.  WW2BW also provides for discussions and information sharing between potential partners from these different areas to collaborate on projects to be implemented in the WCR. The other areas of focus include wastewater and sanitation, sustainable agricultural practices, integrated coastal management, sustainable tourism and


What can you do?

Simple ways of taking action:

  • Never pour oil into the drain or on the ground.
  • Maintain your vehicle to make sure no oil leak from it.
  • Recycle all used oil from for example your car.
  • Limit paved surfaces since they prevent natural percolation down into the ground causing runoff of water to end up at the sea without natural cleaning through infiltration.
  • Report any oil spills you may see. Note date, time and location of the incident.
  • Choose cruise ships with sound environmental practices.
  • Join environmental protection groups.
  • Inform and teach family, friends, children and other people with less knowledge about the damage oil do to the Caribbean sea.





  • BEST, 2002, Bahamas Environmental Handbook,  Bahamas Environment Science and Technology Commission, The Government of The Bahamas, Nassau New Providence, The Bahamas.
  • Botello A V, 2000, Diagnosis de la Industria Petrolera en Tabasco, Informe Final IV Etapa Instituto de Ciencias del Mar y Limnología, UNAM  Mexico
  • Caribbean Law Institute, 1998, Integrated Coastal Zone Management and Legislation in the Anglophone Caribbean., Organization of American States
  • GESAMP Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspect of Marine Environmental Protection, 2007, Estimates of Oil Entering the Marine Environment From Sea-Based Activities, International Martime Organization, London
  • Global Marine Oil Pollution Gataway, Taken 2008-03-03 from http://oils.gpa.unep.org/
  • IMO/FAO/UNESCO/WMO/IAEA/UN/UNEP, 2007, Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution GESAMP 2007, Estimates of oil entering the marine environment from sea-based activities, International Martime Organization London
  • IMO/FAO/UNESCO-IOC/WMO/UNIDO/IAEA/UN/UNEP, 2003, Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP) 1993, Impact of oil and related chemicals on the marine environment, International Martime Organization London
  • INVEMAR, 2001,  Informe del estado de los ambientes marinos y costeros en Colombia: año 2001, Ospina-Salazar G H, Acero A, (ed). Vol. 8. Serie publicaciones periódicas, Instituto de Investigaciones
  • Marinas y Costeras, Medellín: cuartas impresiones, 2002, 178 p
  • ITOPF- The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited, 1996,  An assessment of the risk of oil spills and the state of preparedness in 13 International tanker owners pollution federation limited
  • ITOPF- The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited, 2003, Wider Caribbean Regional Profiles - A Summery of the Risk of Oil Spills & State of Preperedness in UNEP Regional Seas Regions
  • Jackson J B, 1989, Ecological effects of a major oil spill on Panamerican coastal marine communities, Science, 243:37-44
  • RAN, 2003, Oil in Venezuela’s Orinoco delta, a city group case study, Rain Forest Action Network, Taken in May 2003 from http://www.ran.org/ran_campaigns/citigroup/cs_venezoil.html
  • Rosillon L, 2002, Cinco mil barriles de crudo se aproximan al Río Catatumbo, Taken November 2002 from http://www.ÚltimasNoticias.com.ve
  • UNEP/GEF/Kalmar Högskola, 2004, Global International Water Assessment (GIWA), Caribbean Sea/Small Islands GIWA Regional assessment 3a, Kalmar Sweden
  • UNEP/GEF/Kalmar Högskola,Invemar, 2006, Global International Water Assessment (GIWA), Caribbean Sea/Colombia & Venezuela, Central America & Mexico GIWA Regional Assessment 3b, 3c, Kalmar Sweden
  • UNEP/GEF/Kalmar Högskola/Cimab 2004, Global International Water Assessment (GIWA), Caribbean Islands Bahamas, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico Regional Assessment 4, Kalmar Sweden
  • UNEP, 1999, Assessment of land-based Sources and Activities Affecting the Marine, Coastal and Associated Freshwater Environment in the Wider Caribbean Region, UNEP/GPA Coordination Office and Caribbean Environment Programme, Kingston Jamaica
  • UNEP, 1999b, Global Environment Outlook 2000, Earths and Publications, Ltd. London
  • Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia, Taken 2008-05-10 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ixtoc_I