Oil Tanker Spill Statistics 2016


ITOPF maintains a database of oil spills from tankers, combined carriers and barges. This contains information on accidental spillages of persistent and non-persistent oil since 1970, except those resulting from acts of war.

The data held includes the type of oil spilt, the spill amount, the cause and location of the incident and the vessel involved. For historical reasons, spills are generally categorised by size, <7 tonnes, 7-700 tonnes and >700 tonnes (<50 bbls, 50-5,000 bbls, >5,000 bbls), although the actual amount spilt is also recorded. Information is now held on approximately 10,000 incidents, the vast majority of which (81%) fall into the smallest category i.e. <7 tonnes.

Information is gathered from both published sources, such as the shipping press and other specialist publications, as well as from vessel owners, their insurers and from ITOPF’s own experience on site at incidents. Unsurprisingly, information from published sources generally relates to large spills, often resulting from collisions, groundings, structural damage, fires or explosions, whereas the majority of individual reports relate to small, operational spillages. Reliable reporting of small spills (<7 tonnes) is often difficult to achieve.

Number of Oil Spills in 2016

In 2016, one large tanker spill (>700 tonnes) was recorded. This occurred in September in the Gulf of Mexico and involved cargoes of gasoline and diesel. Approximately 5,500 tonnes of oil was burnt in the explosion which sparked a fire. ITOPF attended this incident on site and provided technical advice in support of the response on behalf of the shipowner and his insurers.

Four medium-sized spills (7-700 tonnes) were also reported in 2016. The first was recorded in January at a port in South America, where crude oil was spilt during loading operations. The second incident was recorded in Malaysia in August and involved marine fuel oil which was also spilt during loading operations. ITOPF provided technical advice in both cases. The remaining two, which both resulted in fires, were reported in the last quarter of the year in the USA and China.

Quantities of oil spilt in 2016

The total amount of oil lost to the environment through tanker incidents in 2016 was approximately 6,000 tonnes, the majority of which can be attributed to the large spill (>700 tonnes) recorded in September.

Important Information

It should be noted that the figures for the amount of oil spilt in an incident include all oil lost to the environment, including that which burnt or remained in a sunken vessel. There is considerable annual variation in both the incidence of oil spills and the amounts of oil lost. While we strive to maintain precise records for all spill information, we cannot guarantee that the information taken from the shipping press and other sources is complete or accurate. The number of incidents and volumes of oil spilt are based on the most up to date information. From time to time, data is received after publication, in which case adjustment to previous entries may be made. Consequently, the figures and data shown and any averages derived should be viewed with an element of caution.

Tanker spills from 1970 to 2016

There has been a downward trend in numbers of large oil spills, i.e. greater than 700 tonnes, from tankers annually. The average number of tanker incidents involving large oil spills, has progressively reduced and since 2010 stands at an average of 1.7 per year.

Number of large oil spills (>700 tonnes) from 1970 to 2016
Quantities of oil spilt 7 tonnes and over (rounded to nearest thousand), 1970-2016

It is interesting to note that the progressive reduction in number of large spills is significant when data is analysed per decade rather than annually as demonstrated in the figure below. Data recorded from 1970 to 2016 show there can be fluctuations in the yearly values within a decade.

A decline can also be observed with medium-sized spills (7-700 tonnes). The average number of spills per year in the 1990s was 28.1, reducing to 14.9 in the 2000s and is currently 5 for the 2010s (not a complete decade).

While increased movements might imply increased risk, it is encouraging to observe that downward trends in oil spills continue despite an overall increase in oil trading since the mid-1980s (figure below right).

Number of large (>700 tonnes) and medium (7-700 tonnes) spills per decade from 1970 to 2016
*Only 7 years of data for the period 2010-2016
Seaborne oil trade and number of tanker spills 7 tonnes and over, 1970 to 2015 (Crude and Oil Product*) Data source: UNCTADStat

Large Oil Spills

When looking at the frequency and quantities of oil spilt, it should be noted that a few very large spills are responsible for a high percentage of oil spilt. For example, in more recent decades the following can be seen:

· In the 1990s there were 358 spills of 7 tonnes and over, resulting in 1,133,000 tonnes of oil lost; 73% of this amount was spilt in just 10 incidents.

· In the 2000s there were 181 spills of 7 tonnes and over, resulting in 196,000 tonnes of oil lost; 75% of this amount was spilt in just 10 incidents.

· In the seven year period 2010-2016 there have been 47 spills of 7 tonnes and over, resulting in 39,000 tonnes of oil lost; 83% of this amount was spilt in just 10 incidents.

In terms of the volume of oil spilt, the figures for a particular year may be severely distorted by a single large incident. This is clearly illustrated by incidents such as ATLANTIC EMPRESS (1979), 287,000 tonnes spilt; CASTILLO DE BELLVER (1983), 252,000 tonnes spilt and ABT SUMMER (1991), 260,000 tonnes spilt.

Spills 7 tonnes and over per decade showing the influence of a relatively small number of comparatively large spills on the overall figure

Causes of Large Oil Spills

In the period 1970 to 2016, nearly 50% of large spills occurred while the vessels were underway in open water; allisions, collisions and groundings accounted for 59% of the causes for these spills. These same causes accounted for an even higher percentage of incidents when the vessel was underway in inland or restricted waters, being linked to some 99% of spills.

Incidence of spills >700 tonnes by operation at
time of incident and primary cause of spill, 1970-2016.
(One bunkering incident occurred in this size category but has not been included in this figure)

Major Oil Spills

A brief summary of the top 20 major oil spills that have occurred since the TORREY CANYON in 1967 are shown below; it is of note that 19 of the largest spills recorded occurred before the year 2000. A number of these incidents, despite their large size, caused little or no environmental damage as the oil was spilt some distance offshore and did not impact coastlines. It is for this reason that some of the names listed may be unfamiliar. EXXON VALDEZ and HEBEI SPIRIT are included for comparison although these incidents fall some way outside the group in terms of volume spilt.

Top 20 Major Spills Table

PositionShipnameYearLocationSpill Size
1ATLANTIC EMPRESS 1979Off Tobago, West Indies 287,000
2ABT SUMMER1991 700 nautical miles off Angola 260,000
3CASTILLO DE BELLVER 1983Off Saldanha Bay, South Africa 252,000
4AMOCO CADIZ 1978Off Brittany, France 223,000
5HAVEN 1991Genoa, Italy 144,000
6ODYSSEY1988700 nautical miles off Nova Scotia, Canada132,000
7TORREY CANYON1967Scilly Isles, UK119,000
8SEA STAR1972Gulf of Oman115,000
9IRENES SERENADE1980Navarino Bay, Greece100,000
10URQUIOLA 1976La Coruna, Spain100,000
11HAWAIIAN PATRIOT1977300 nautical miles off Honolulu95,000
12INDEPENDENTA1979Bosphorus, Turkey94,000
13JAKOB MAERSK1975Oporto, Portugal88,000
14BRAER 1993Shetland Islands, UK85,000
15AEGEAN SEA1992La Coruna, Spain74,000
16SEA EMPRESS1996Milford Haven, UK72000
17KHARK 51989120 nautical miles off Atlantic coast of Morocco70,000
18NOVA1985Off Kharg Island, Gulf of Iran70,000
19KATINA P1992Off Maputo, Mozambique67,000
20PRESTIGE2002Off Galicia, Spain63,000
35EXXON VALDEZ 1989Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA37,000
131HEBEI SPIRIT2007South Korea11,000
Tanker Top 20 Incidents Map