Spilled Oil Composition and the Natural Carbon Cycle: The True Drivers of Environmental Fate and Effects of Oil Spills

  • Edward B. OvertonEmail author
  • Dana L. Wetzel
  • Jeffrey K. Wickliffe
  • Puspa L. Adhikari


Rachel Carson’s 1962 landmark book, Silent Spring, describing the toxic effects of the persistent organic pesticide, DDT, was instrumental in bringing awareness to the notion of environmental pollution (Carson, Silent spring. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1962). This work was a catalyst that began the advancement of the global environmental pollution movement and the concern for persistent chemical pollutants (POP). By intentional design, POPs are chemically nonreactive and are resistant to degradation in aerobic environments. It is important to realize that oil pollution and toxicity derived from the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) components in crude oil are fundamentally different from the chemistry of persistent organic pollutions and its bioaccumulation and magnification that were learned in the 1960s and 1970s. Petroleum hydrocarbons are not stable; they are, in fact, quite reactive in aerobic environments via microbial (Varjani, Bioresour Technol 223:277–286, 2017; Atlas and Hazen, Environ Sci Technol 45:6709–6715, 2011; Salminen et al., Biodegradation 15:29–39, 2004; Widdel and Rabus, Curr Opin Biotechnol 12:259–276, 2001) and photochemical (D’Auria et al., J Hazard Mater 164:32–38, 2009; Plata et al., Environ Sci Technol 42:2432–2438, 2008; Garrett et al., Environ Sci Technol 32:3719–3723, 1998; Overton EB, Laseter JL, Mascarella SW, Raschke C, Nuiry I, Farrington JW (1980) Photochemical oxidation of IXTOC I oil, pp 341–383. In: Proceedings of symposium on preliminary results from the September 1979 Researcher/Pierce IXTOC I Cruise. Key Biscayne, Florida, June 9–10, 1980, NOAA Office of Marine Pollution Assessment, Boulder, CO) oxidations. To understand the implications of oil spills, we need to recognize that we are dealing with the reduced form of a pollutant that can readily react in most of the environments. The goal of this chapter is to present the dynamics of an oil spill from the molecular level with a description of the carbon cycle, the role of photosynthesis, diagenetic production of oil, its ultimate conversion back to carbon dioxide, and the fundamental carbon cycle processes in environmental chemistry. Only by understanding what happens chemically to spilled oil can we accurately predict and understand the biological consequences of these spills and the harm done by exposures to hydrocarbons from oil.


Carbon cycle Diagenesis Catagenesis Live oil Dead oil Oxidation 



This research was made possible by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative through its consortia C-IMAGE and CWC.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Edward B. Overton
    • 1
    Email author
  • Dana L. Wetzel
    • 2
  • Jeffrey K. Wickliffe
    • 3
  • Puspa L. Adhikari
    • 4
  1. 1.Louisiana State University, Department of Environmental SciencesBaton RougeUSA
  2. 2.Mote Marine Laboratory, Environmental Laboratory for ForensicsSarasotaUSA
  3. 3.Tulane University, School of Public Health and Tropical MedicineNew OrleansUSA
  4. 4.Florida Gulf Coast University, Department of Marine and Ecological SciencesFort MyersUSA

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