There is little argument that liquid petroleum (crude oil and the products refined from it) plays a pervasive role in modern society. As recently as the late 1990s, the average price of a barrel of crude oil was less than that of a take-out dinner. Yet a fluctuation of 20 or 30 percent in that price can influence automotive sales, holiday travel decisions, interest rates, stock market trends, and the gross national product of industrialized nations, whether they are net exporters or importers of crude oil. A quick examination of world history over the last century would reveal the fundamental impact access to crude oil has had on the geopolitical landscape. Fortunes are made and lost over it; wars have been fought over it. Yet its sheer magnitude makes understanding the true extent of the role of petroleum in society difficult to grasp. Furthermore, widespread use of any substance will inevitably result in intentional and accidental releases to the environment. The frequency, size, and environmental consequences of such releases play a key role in determining the extent of steps taken to limit their occurrence or the extent and nature of mitigation efforts taken to minimize the damage they cause.
Consequently, the United States and other nations engaged in strategic decisionmaking regarding energy use spend a significant amount of time examining policies affecting the extraction, transportation, and consumption of petroleum. In addition to the geopolitical aspects of energy policymaking, the economic growth spurred by inexpensive fuel costs must be balanced against the environmental consequences associated with widespread use of petroleum. Petroleum poses a range of environmental risks when released into the environment (whether as catastrophic spills or chronic discharges). In addition to physical impacts of large spills, the toxicity of many of the individual compounds contained in petroleum is significant, and even small releases can kill or damage organisms from the cellular- to the population-level. Compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are known human carcinogens and occur in varying proportions in crude oil and refined products. Making informed decisions about ways to minimize risks to the environment requires an understanding of how releases of petroleum associated with different components of petroleum extraction, transportation, and consumption vary in size, frequency, and environmental impact.
In recognition of the need for periodic examinations of the nature and effect of petroleum releases to the environment, various governments have commissioned a variety of studies of the problem over the last few decades. Within the United States, federal agencies have turned to the National Research Council on several instances to look at the issue. One of the most widely quoted studies of this type was completed in 1985 and entitled Oil in the Sea: Inputs, Fates, and Effects. The report that follows was initially requested by the Minerals Management Service (U.S.) in 1998. Financial support was obtained from the Minerals Management Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, the American Petroleum Institute, and the National Ocean Industries Association. Although originally envisioned as an update of the 1985 report, this study goes well beyond that effort in terms of proposing a clear methodology for determining estimates of petroleum inputs to the marine environment. In addition, the geographic and temporal variability in those inputs and the significance of those inputs in terms of their effect on the marine environment are more fully explored. Like the 1985 report, this report covers theoretical aspects of the fate and effect of petroleum in the marine environment. This current effort, however, benefited tremendously by the existence of more systematic databases and the voluminous field and laboratory work completed since the early 1980s, work largely stimulated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska.