Oil Spill Devastates Western Colombia


At the beginning of March, an oil well in northern Colombia burst, spewing an unclear amount of oil into the Magdalena River. (National Geographic)

Use our resources to learn more about oil spills and their impact on ecosystems and human activity.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

At least 500 barrels of crude oil spilled into the Magdalena River in Western Colombia earlier this month.
Photograph by Erik Cleves Kristensen, courtesy Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Discussion Ideas

  • Hundreds of barrels of petroleum have spilled into a river in Colombia. What is petroleum? Skim through our great reference resource for some help.
    • Petroleum is a liquid or mostly liquid fossil fuel. Like all fossil fuels, petroleum is formed as the remains of ancient marine plants and animals are buried and subjected to intense heat and pressure over millions of years. Today, petroleum is found in vast underground reservoirs where ancient seas were located. Petroleum reservoirs can be found beneath land or the ocean floor. Their crude oil is extracted with giant drilling machines.
    • The oil field explored in the area of the spill is the Middle Magdalena Valley. Here’s a map of the area.


  • The type of petroleum that spilled was crude oil. What is crude oil?
    • Crude oil is a thick, sticky substance made of differing chemical compounds. Light oils can contain up to 97% hydrocarbons, while heavier oils and bitumens might contain only 50% hydrocarbons and larger quantities of other elements (such as nitrogen or sulfur).


  • How did the oil spill in Colombia happen?
    • Authorities aren’t sure. Ecopetrol, the state-owned oil company many conservationists blame for the spill, is investigating the incident.
    • What we do know is that between 550 and 2,400 barrels of crude oil spilled into the Magdalena River, and the oil has since spread to other waterways.




  • How has the economy of the region been impacted by the spill?
    • Dozens of families have been forced to relocate. This increases expenditures and limits income.
    • Hundreds of people have sought medical attention, limiting their ability to work or attend school.
    • The environmental impact on agriculture has devastated the economy and limited food resources available to the local population.



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