Oil Tanker Spill Statistics 2020


ITOPF maintains a database of oil spills from tank vessels, including combined carriers, FPSOs and barges. This contains information on accidental spillages of persistent and non-persistent hydrocarbon oil since 1970, except those resulting from acts of war. The data held includes the location and cause of the incident, the vessel involved, the type of oil spilt and the spill amount. 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 over 10,000 incidents, the vast majority of which fall into the smallest category i.e. <7 tonnes.

Information is gathered from 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 at incidents. Historically, information from published sources mostly related to large spills, often resulting from collisions, groundings, structural damage, fires or explosions. In recent decades, however, reporting of smaller spills has improved.


Number of oil spills in 2020

For the year 2020, we recorded zero large spills (>700 tonnes) and three medium spills (7–700 tonnes).

The first medium spill occurred early in the year in Europe and the other two occurred in the last quarter of the year in Africa and Asia.

This is the same number of spills >7 tonnes as recorded in 2019 and remains the lowest number in any particular year since 1970.

(This data relates to spills with confirmed volumes.)

Quantity of oil spilt in 2020

The total volume of oil lost to the environment from tanker spills in 2020 was approximately 1,000 tonnes. This is the same quantity as recorded in 2012 and 2019, and the lowest annual figure recorded in the last five decades.

Global oil spill trend

Over the past half century, statistics for the frequency of spills greater than 7 tonnes from tankers have shown a marked downward trend, as illustrated below.

Number of spills (>7 tonnes) from 1970 to 2020


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 recorded based on the most up to date information. From time to time, data is received after publication and, in which case, adjustment to previous entries may be made. Consequently, the figures in the following tables, and any averages derived from them, should be viewed with a degree of caution.

We regret that it is not possible to provide direct access to our database or to release the names of individual tanker incidents.

Tanker spills from 1970 to 2020

The number of large spills (>700 tonnes) has decreased significantly over the last few decades.  The yearly average recorded in the 2010s was 1.8 spills, which is less than a tenth of the average recorded in the 1970s. No large spills were recorded in 2020.

Similarly, there has been a significant decrease in the quantity of oil spilled through the decades. In the 2010s approximately 164,000 tonnes of oil were lost from tanker spills of 7 tonnes and above, a 95% reduction since the 1970s. 


Number of large spills (>700 tonnes) from 1970 to 2020
Quantities of oil spilt 7 tonnes and over (rounded to nearest thousand), 1970 to 2020

It is interesting to note that the progressive reduction in the number of large spills is significant when data is analysed per decade rather than annually. Data recorded from 1970 to 2020 illustrate fluctuations in the yearly values within a decade. A continuation of long-term decline can also be seen with medium sized spills (7–700 tonnes). The average number of spills per year last decade was 4.5, which is below a tenth of the average recorded in the 1970s.

While increased tanker movements might imply increased risk, it is encouraging to observe that the downward trend in oil spills continues despite an overall increase in oil trading over the period (figure below right).

Number of medium (7-700 tonnes) and large (>700 tonnes) spills per decade from 1970 to 2020
Decline in number of tanker spills vs growth in crude and other tanker trade loaded 1970-2019
Decline in number of tanker spills vs growth in crude and other tanker trade loaded 1970-2019 (UNCTAD information not yet available for 2020)

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 the 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 1,134,000 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 2010s there were 63 spills of 7 tonnes and over, resulting in 164,000 tonnes of oil lost; 91% of this amount was spilt in just 10 incidents. One incident was responsible for about 70% of the quantity of oil spilt.

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; ABT SUMMER (1991), 260,000 tonnes spilt; and SANCHI (2018), 113,000 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 2020, 50% of large spills occurred while the vessels were underway in open water; allisions, collisions and groundings accounted for 58% of the causes of these spills. These same causes account for an even higher percentage of spills (99%) when the vessels were underway in inland or restricted waters.

Incidence of spills >700 tonnes by operation at time of incident and primary cause of spill, 1970 -2020

Major Oil Spills in History

A summary of the 20 largest tanker spills that have occurred since the TORREY CANYON in 1967 is given below. It is of note that 19 of the 20 largest spills recorded occurred before the year 2000. SANCHI, the latest addition to the list, is the only major spill of non-persistent oil featured here and it resulted in significantly lower environmental impacts compared to some crude oil spills listed.

A number of the incidents, despite their large size, necessitated little or no response as the oil was spilt some distance offshore and did not impact coastlines. For this reason some of the names listed may be unfamiliar.

PRESTIGE, EXXON VALDEZ and HEBEI SPIRIT are included for comparison although these incidents are further down the list. 

Top 20 Major Spills Table

Position Shipname Year Location Spill Size
1 ATLANTIC EMPRESS 1979 Off Tobago, West Indies 287,000
2 ABT SUMMER 1991 700 nautical miles off Angola 260,000
3 CASTILLO DE BELLVER 1983 Off Saldanha Bay, South Africa 252,000
4 AMOCO CADIZ 1978 Off Brittany, France 223,000
5 HAVEN 1991 Genoa, Italy 144,000
6 ODYSSEY 1988 700 nautical miles off Nova Scotia, Canada 132,000
7 TORREY CANYON 1967 Scilly Isles, UK 119,000
8 SEA STAR 1972 Gulf of Oman 115,000
9 SANCHI 2018 Off Shanghai, China 113,000
10 IRENES SERENADE 1980 Navarino Bay, Greece 100,000
11 URQUIOLA 1976 La Coruna, Spain 100,000
12 HAWAIIAN PATRIOT 1977 300 nautical miles off Honolulu 95,000
13 INDEPENDENTA 1979 Bosphorus, Turkey 94,000
14 JAKOB MAERSK 1975 Oporto, Portugal 88,000
15 BRAER 1993 Shetland Islands, UK 85,000
16 AEGEAN SEA 1992 La Coruna, Spain 74,000
17 SEA EMPRESS 1996 Milford Haven, UK 72000
18 KHARK 5 1989 120 nautical miles off Atlantic coast of Morocco 70,000
19 NOVA 1985 Off Kharg Island, Gulf of Iran 70,000
20 KATINA P 1992 Off Maputo, Mozambique 67,000
21 PRESTIGE 2002 Off Galicia, Spain 63,000
36 EXXON VALDEZ 1989 Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA 37,000
132 HEBEI SPIRIT 2007 South Korea 11,000
Location of major spills