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Where Does The BP Gulf Oil Spill Rank Among The World’s Worst?

The black crude keeps flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from an uncapped oil rig, the worst oil leak in U.S. history.

On May 28, the chairman of BP upgraded the severity of the oil spill from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig from "very modest" to an "environmental catastrophe." That followed a report by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that said the Gulf spill had eclipsed the Exxon Valdez disaster as the worst in U.S. history. 

But where does this oil spill rank when you consider the world's worst in the last 50 years?

The Valdez spill only ranks 34th or 35th on the list of the world's worst oil spills. We'll take a look at some of the world's worst, keeping in mind that the estimates of flow are not always exact.

Because the Deepwater Horizon is most frequently compared to the Exxon Valdez, including in this article by Brad Marten of Marten Law, let's start there.

The Valdez, which was carrying 53 million gallons of crude oil, hit a reef in Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989, and spilled an estimated 10.8 million gallons. The USGS has estimated that 504,000 to more than 1 million gallons of crude oil a day have been leaking from the Deepwater Horizon since it exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers.

The World's Worst Spills

According to a list compiled by Will Wright, the Valdez spill was minor compared to these incidents:

  • The Torrey Canyon supertanker spilled 25 million to 36 million gallons of oil after striking a reef off the coast of Cornwall, England, on May 18, 1967.
  • The supertanker Sea Star spilled 35.3 million gallons after colliding with a Brazilian tanker off the coast of Oman on Dec. 19, 1972.
  • The Odyssey oil spill on Nov. 10, 1988, leaked 40.7 million gallons of crude about 700 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland.
  • The M/T Haven oil tanker exploded on April 11, 1991, and sank off the coast of Genoa, Italy. Its 45 million gallons leaked into the Mediterranean for 12 years after the sinking. 
  • The ABT Summer exploded off the coast of Angola on May 28, 1991, spilling 51 million to 81 million gallons.
  • The storm-damaged Amoco Cadiz supertanker ran aground and broke in two on March 16, 1978, spilling 69 million gallons of oil into the English Channel off of Portsall, France.
  • The Castillo de Bellver caught fire on Aug. 6, 1983, about 70 miles northwest of Cape Town, South Africa.  It broke in two, spilling 79 million gallons of oil.
  • A tanker collided with an oil platform in the Persian Gulf off Iran, spilling 80 million gallons between Feb. 10 and Sept. 18, 1983.
  • A ruptured pipeline caused a spill of 84 million gallons on the Kolva River in Russia when a dike that was containing the leaking oil collapsed on Sept. 8, 1994.
  • The Atlantic Empress tanker was caught in a tropical storm and collided with another ship on July 19, 1979, continuing to lose oil before sinking on Aug. 3, 1979.  The spill off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago totaled 90 million gallons.
  • A blowout at an oil rig being drilled in the Bay of Campeche off Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico, on March 23, 1980, caused a total of 140 million gallons to leak over almost an entire year before it was capped.
  • The world's worst oil spill occurred on Jan. 19, 1991, during the Gulf War, when Iraqi soldiers seeking to prevent the landing of American troops deliberately caused the spill of 380 million to 520 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf, Kuwait.

Santa Barbara And The Modern Environmental Movement

The oil spill that many credit with spurring the modern U.S. environmental movement occurred on Jan. 28, 1969, when a blowout of a Union Oil platform six miles offshore of California caused anywhere from 80,000 to 3 million barrels of crude oil to spill into the Santa Barbara Channel in the Pacific Ocean in Southern California and onto the beaches of Santa Barbara County.  The spill fouled the coastline from Goleta to Rincon and all four of the Channel Islands. Thousands of birds died.  No new drilling has been approved off the California coast since the catastrophe.

Oil Spill Resources

Visit the Gulf Spill Information Hub on the LexisNexis Emerging Issues Law Community for news, commentaries, podcasts and videos related to the Gulf oil spill. subscribers can find Deepwater Horizon-related filings here.  If you do not have a ID, you can get information on how to subscribe here.

To see a constantly updated tally of estimated gallons leaked from the Deepwater Horizon, visit the PBS NewsHour Gulf Oil Tracker.

More information on the world's worst oil spills is available at Infoplease, EnviroWonk and Wikkipedia. BP has also set up a Gulf of Mexico Response site.