In 2020, there were only 3 incidents where more than 7 tonnes of oil were spilled, according to annual ITOPF statistics of oil spills from tankers. The total volume of oil lost in all 3 incidents was approximately 1,000 MT, when the annual volume of oil moved by sea is approximately 3 billion tonnes, making it amongst the lowest on record.
Number of oil spills in 2020
- For the year 2020, ITOPF recorded zero large spills (>700 tonnes) and three medium spills (7–700 tonnes).
- The first medium spill occurred early in the year in Europe and the other two occurred in the last quarter of the year in Africa and Asia.
- This is the same number of spills >7 tonnes as recorded in 2019 and remains the lowest number in any particular year since 1970.
During the half-century since ITOPF’s records began, the frequency of large oil spills (> 700 tonnes) has plummeted such that their occurrence is now a rarity. The average number of spills greater than 7 tonnes per year in the 1970s was about 79 but this has decreased by over 90% to just 6 in the last decade.
Quantity of oil spilled in 2020
- The total volume of oil lost to the environment from tanker spills in 2020 was approximately 1,000 tonnes.
- This is the same quantity as recorded in 2012 and 2019, and the lowest annual figure recorded in the last five decades.
When comparing how the oil was spilt in each decade, it is interesting to note that as the number of oil spills have decreased, the relative proportion of spills arising from allisions and collisions has increased, accounting for around 44% of all oil spills from tankers greater than 7 tonnes.
Although accidents regrettably remain a possibility, the shipping industry, supported by governments, continues to strive towards a goal of zero spills, learning lessons from incidents such as these to reach the highest level of safety and environmental stewardship,
Causes of oil spills
For this analysis, the primary causes of oil spills greater than 7 tonnes have been grouped into Allisions/ Collisions, Groundings, Hull Failures, Equipment Failures, Fires and Explosions, Others and Unknown. Events such as heavy weather damage and human error have been categorized as “Other” and spills where the relevant information is not available have been designated as Unknown and are reported but excluded from the analysis.
Most oil spills (>7 tonnes) recorded between 1970 and 2020 were caused by Allisions/Collisions and Groundings. It is evident that whilst the overall number of spills has reduced, the proportion of those that arise from Allisions/Collisions has increased and those due to groundings have decreased.
It can also be seen that less than 10% of spills (>7 tonnes) are caused by fires and explosions. Interestingly, the quantity of oil lost as a result of Fire/ Explosion is comparable to the quantity spilled from groundings and collisions, each responsible for about 26% of the total quantity of oil spilled since 1970.
Current Trends – Oil spills since 2010
The annual average number of spills >7 tonnes for the last decade (2010s) was 6.3, which is a 65% drop from the average in the previous decade. In the year 2020, the number of spills recorded was lower than the annual average for the prior decade.
With regard to the volume of oil spilled during the last decade, low annual quantities compared to prior decades were recorded for most years. However, a single large spill in 2018 resulted in the largest annual quantity of oil spilt in 24 years being recorded.
The most frequent cause of medium and large spills since 2010 is Allisions/Collisions: 44% of these spills resulted from allisions or collisions, which is higher than the proportions recorded for previous decades. Groundings, on the other hand, have decreased significantly over the period.