Approximately 1/3 of the world’s oil comes from offshore drilling sites. While most offshore rigs never run into any problems, there are occasions when damage to either the structure or the actual drill result in oil spilling into the ocean. One example that’s all too familiar is one of the Deepwater Horizon oil spills. The number one combat system against spills such as this is the deployment of containment booms (see image to the left).
A containment boom is a large, maneuverable flotation device that’s used to contain oil within a given area. After surveying the situation, first responders to an oil spill will lay out a perimeter of booms to contain the oil. The goal when dealing with an oil spill is to create a full circle of booms with no openings or gaps. Once the boom circle is complete, the oil will remain trapped inside where it can no longer continue to spread.
Oil is less dense than water, giving it buyout properties. When oil is released into the ocean, it will naturally float to the surface rather than sinking to the bottom or hovering in the middle. This makes containment booms highly effective at trapping oil spills. Any oil that’s released into the ocean will travel to the surface where booms are waiting to contain it. With that said, oil spreads fast on the surface when it’s not contained. The longer first responders wait to deploy containment booms around the perimeter, the larger the spill area will become. This is why it’s important for responders to work fast during the initial hours of an oil spill.
Containment booms aren’t designed to clean up oil spills, but instead their purpose is to contain them. Once the spill area is contained, the cleanup crew will then decide on the best course of action to remove the oil. Skimming machines pull oil from the surface where it’s collected in containers. In the 2006 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, hundreds of skimming machines were used to clean up the murky Gulf waters.
Some cleanup crews may use absorbent booms rather than containment booms. Basically, absorbent booms are designed to contain and absorb oil. When the booms are full of oil, they will continue to float until a crew members picks them up. Absorbent oil booms offer a quick and easy way to clean up oil, but some crews prefer the simplicity of basic containment booms.