Royal Society of Canada releases Expert Panel Report on impact of crude oil spills in water

Key takeaways from the report include the recommendation of an integrated research program to support and maintain a comprehensive national database to identify and provide information on regional sites at high risk for spills, as well as the identification of seven “high-priority” research needs that encompass spilled crude oil’s impact on communities, wildlife populations and ecosystems across Canada.

The Royal Society of Canada, Canada’s senior ‘National Academy’ representing Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences & Engineering, has released an Expert Panel Report addressing several questions about the effects of oil spills on water in Canada on November 25, 2015. The report, entitled The Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into Aqueous Environments, was compiled by a panel consisting of leading experts on oil chemistry, behaviour and toxicity from across Canada, the United States and Australia.

Research was conducted in response to questions about the chemical composition of crude oils, the effects of environmental conditions on the behaviour of crude oils, and priorities for research investments. A series of scientific stakeholder consultations were held between February – June 2015. The panelists surveyed scientific literature, key reports and key oil spill case studies, and also consulted industry, government and environmental stakeholders across the country.

While the research was set-up in response to a request from the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), all RSC Expert Panel Report sponsors agree to analyses that are independent, evidence-based, and objective. Commissioning organizations had no opportunity to request changes to reports or their recommendations.

Key takeaways from the report include the recommendation of an integrated research program to support and maintain a comprehensive national database to identify and provide information on regional sites at high risk for spills, as well as the identification of seven “high-priority” research needs that encompass spilled crude oil’s impact on communities, wildlife populations and ecosystems across Canada. These seven research needs focused on the critical requirement for further analysis in order to understand, improve and update current protocols and response times to crude oil spills.

The seven “high-priority” research needs are:

  1. Research is needed to better understand the environmental impact of spilled crude oil in high – risk and poorly understood areas, such as Arctic waters, the deep ocean and shores or inland rivers and wetlands.
  2. Research is needed to increase the understanding of effects of oil spills on aquatic life and wildlife at the population, community and ecosystem levels.
  3. A national, priority-directed program of baseline research and monitoring is needed to develop an understanding of the environmental and ecological characteristics of areas that may be affected by oil spills in the future and to identify any unique sensitivity to oil effects.
  4. A program of controlled field research is needed to better understand spill behaviour and effects across a spectrum of crude oil types in different ecosystems and conditions.
  5. Research is needed to investigate the efficacy of spill responses and to take full advantage of ‘spills of opportunity’.
  6. Research is needed to improve spill prevention and develop/apply response decision support systems to ensure sound response decisions and effectiveness.
  7. Research is needed to update and refine risk assessment protocols for oil spills in Canada.

To learn more about the seven research needs identified in the report, view the RSC Expert Panel public presentation: https://www.rsc-src.ca/sites/default/files/pdf/OIW%20Presentation.pdf

Case studies were also examined, such as Exxon-Valdez and Deepwater Horizon, with conclusions including recommendations for controlled field experiments, a collection of pre-spill baseline data, and a more accurate method of measuring the effectiveness of response measures.

The Panel found the unique properties of each of the oil types determine how readily spilled oil spreads, sinks, disperses, impacts aquatic organisms and what proportion ultimately degrades in the environment. Despite the importance of oil type, the Panel concluded that the overall impact of an oil spill, including the effectiveness of an oil spill response, depends mainly on the environmental characteristics and conditions (weather, waves, etc.) where the spill takes place and the time lost before remedial operations.

For more information, please read the RSC Expert Panel Report Executive Summary: https://www.rsc-src.ca/sites/default/files/pdf/OIW_Executive%20Summary.pdf

The November 25 media release can be found here: https://www.rsc-src.ca/sites/default/files/pdf/OIW_Media%20Release_Nov25-FINAL.pdf

The full RSC Expert Panel Report is available for download at this link: https://www.rsc-src.ca/en/expert-panels/rsc-reports/behaviour-and-environmental-impacts-crude-oil-released-into-aqueous