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Panel recommends research into crude oil spills in water in Canada


November 27, 2015
By Ground Water Canada

Calgary – Canada needs an integrated, comprehensive, government-industry research program to better understand, prevent, respond to and clean up crude oil spills in water, The Royal Society of Canada recommends in a new report.

The RSC Expert Panel report, entitled The Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into Aqueous Environments, found that major oil spills in freshwater and marine ecosystems are rare, but there are critical and significant research gaps.

“While advances in science and technology and improved safety practices have significantly reduced the threat of oil spills in Canadian waters over the past few decades, much about the fate, environmental impacts and remediation of oil spills remain poorly understood,” said RSC Expert Panel Chair Dr. Kenneth Lee, in a news release. Lee is Director of Oceans and Atmosphere, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Perth, Western Australia.

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“The focused, prioritized research we recommend will equip policy makers, oil industry decision makers, oil spill responders and other Canadians with improved operational guidelines and advanced tools to reduce the risk of accidental spills, and to ensure the protection of Canada’s marine and inland waters and the sustainability of their living resources from the effects of spilled oil.”

The panel noted that while protocols are in place within Canada for spill-response measures, their effectiveness is limited by the availability of information to support their decision-making process.

The panel recommended the formation of an integrated (government-industry-academia) research program to support and maintain a comprehensive national database to identify and provide information on regional sites at high risk for spills. This database would include the characteristics of oil spilled and behaviour under different environmental conditions, pre-spill baseline data including identifying valued ecosystem components for high-risk sites, and the effectiveness of various spill response options.

Canada produces more than 3.7 million barrels of oil every day and imports hundreds of thousands more. The unique properties, or chemical “fingerprints,” of dozens of crude oil types transported in Canada determine how readily spilled oil spreads, sinks, disperses, impacts wildlife and ultimately degrades in the environment, the panel found.

However, the panel concluded that the overall impact of an oil spill – including the effectiveness of an oil spill response – depends mainly on the environment and conditions (such as weather, waves and natural biodegradation) where the spill takes place, and the time lost before remedial operations.

The panel identified seven “high-priority” research needs that encompass spilled crude oil’s impact on communities, wildlife populations and ecosystems across Canada.

In addition to studies on “spills of opportunity,” carefully controlled field research on oil spills in actual water bodies should be conducted to better understand spill behaviour and effects across a spectrum of crude oil types in different ecosystems and conditions, the panel recommended. Coordinated studies should be done at sites of previous oil spills in Canada to increase understanding of the effects of spilled oil over the long term and the extent of natural cleanup.

Studies are needed to better understand the chemistry, properties and spill behaviour of oil sands bitumen, diluted bitumen and other unconventional oils. Also, more research should be done on the development and validation of spill cleanup methods that limit habitat damage and threats to wildlife, and methods to identify endpoints for cleanup operations based on habitat recovery.

More work is necessary to determine the environmental impact of spilled crude oil in high-risk and poorly understood areas and sensitive ecosystems, such as Arctic waters and shores, inland rivers and wetlands. Indigenous peoples from all parts of Canada need to be involved in spills preparedness, cleanup, remediation and long-term restoration, the panel recommended.

The seven-member RSC Expert Panel, comprising leading experts on oil chemistry, behaviour and toxicity, produced one of the most comprehensive reports of its kind. The panel surveyed scientific literature, key reports, selected oil spill case studies and extensively consulted key industry, government, aboriginal and environmental stakeholders across Canada.