The effects of releases of oils (hydrocarbons) into the marine and coastal environment has been an issue of environmental concern for many decades. From originally being related mainly to pollution from sea-based sources such as shipping and offshore (accidental as well as operational discharges), the problem of oil pollution of the marine environment has gradually grown to encompass a very wide range of both land-based (coastal and inland) and sea-based sources within most sectors of society.

The diversity of sources, and thus the complexity of the issue of marine oil pollution, has been highlighted in many regions around the world, and in several political and marine research fora. Oil products are found everywhere in society and so is the problem of hydrocarbons entering the aquatic environment. Only recently, it is concluded in a study by the U.S. National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences that the largest part, probably in the magnitude of 80 per cent, of the petroleum that enters the marine environment worldwide comes from land-based sources, many of them diffuse. In the case of the marine waters around North America, the figure of oils from land-based sources, including polluted river runoff, has been estimated at 85 per cent of the total.

Consequently, in order to be able to effectively deal with the multifaceted problem of marine oil pollution, these numerous and widespread sources must be addressed in the political framework as well as in practical action. The overall objective of all initiatives and actions should be to prevent, reduce and/or eliminate emissions and discharges from human activities in order to prevent, reduce and eliminate pollution of the marine environment caused by oils.


Like in many other cases, actions need to be taken at a number of levels depending on the source to be addressed. Globally, international action, e.g. within the UN International Maritime Organisation (IMO), is needed to further control the operational discharges and emissions of oil and waste, as well as air pollutants, from shipping (MARPOL 73/78), and to reduce the risks for major accidents (SOLAS). Measures should build on the regulations set out in these and other existing conventions with global coverage. Transboundary air pollution, e.g., VOCs and PAHs from the handling and use of oil products, could be further controlled at the global or regional level via agreements such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN ECE Convention on Long-range transport of air pollution (Europe and North America), and others.

Global action: International agreements, conventions and action plans of relevance to the issue of marine and coastal oil pollution.

Global actors: Intergovernmental and non-governmental (private sector, environmental, etc.) organizations of relevance to the issue of marine and coastal oil pollution.


Discharges of hydrocarbons from offshore activities and land-based sources should be addressed through co-operation at the regional or national level. Regionally, these issues are best dealt with within the framework of the UNEP Regional Seas and Partner Seas Programmes and relevant annexes or protocols to the regional agreements. The measures agreed on the regional level should, however, also be put into a global context, e.g., as essential components of the implementation of the Global Programme of Action for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Land-based Activities (UNEP GPA). In this context it should be noted that oils (hydrocarbons) is one of the pollutant source categories included in the GPA.

Regional action and actors: Regional conventions, agreements and actors of relevance to the issue of marine and coastal oil pollution, presented for 21 regional sea areas around the world.


However, decisions taken at international and regional level must, to be fully effective, be backed by solid efforts at the national level. Nationally, states are to implement the commitments made internationally, and also supplement these with country-specific actions to address national priority issues as appropriate. This might best be done through the development of comprehensive national programmes, as envisaged in the GPA, for the reduction and/or elimination of priority emissions and discharges from antrophogenic sources. National action will have to be taken at several levels, from nation-wide measures to measures at municipality level. To bring about changes of attitude in society regarding the way we handle oil products in our everyday lives is also of utmost importance.

National programmes could include such components as targets, timetables, and sector-specific measures (according to the precautionary principle and the principles of best available techniques (BAT), best environmental practice (BEP), and integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC), as well as fiscal and economic incentives and measures, including voluntary agreements, to encourage reductions in emissions and discharges of oils, to encouragement to recycle used lubricating oils, and to encourage fuel-use efficiencies. Programmes could also comprise the provision of reception and recycling facilities for oily wastes, the development of plans and measures to prevent accidental releases of oils, particularly from coastal refineries, storage facilities and waste reception facilities and of capacities to respond to such accidents, the establishment of cleaner production programmes in cooperation with industry, and means to ensure the effective implementation of the programme of action.

National action: Examples of national action in the some of the 21 regional sea areas.