A lack of reliable scientific information about what happens when crude oil is spilled into rivers or the ocean and a fragmented system of response plans is hindering Canada’s efforts to prevent and clean up oil spills, says a major report by the Royal Society of Canada.
The lengthy report was written by a panel of seven experts on oil chemistry, behaviour and toxicity.
Case studies, including B.C.’s Pine River pipeline break and the April leak of fuel oil into Vancouver’s English Bay, showed delays in response time were common, with causes ranging from poor communication and coordination among government agencies to lack of preparedness.
But the main problem was an absence of reliable scientific data.
“There is a critical need for a coordinated and integrated database of information relevant to the assessment of risk of oil spills in Canada,” says the report.
Groups do not always share information and response scenarios can be unrealistic, according to the panel, which is recommending the formation of a joint government, industry and academic research program to come up with a national database to provide accurate information when an oil spill occurs.
“There is an urgent need in Canada to develop science-based guidance and protocols for oil spill impact, risk assessments and clean-up,” the report says
Sometimes the quality of existing data is questionable, the panel found. For example, pipeline leaks usually take hours to discover rather than minutes, so scenarios based on instant identification of a problem are unrealistic.
Panel chair Kenneth Lee, oceans and atmosphere director at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Perth, Australia, said in an interview that Canada has relatively stringent rules and processes, but they would be improved by a coordinated approach to research in key areas, such as the behaviour of different types of oil, pre-spill baselines, new techniques and the effectiveness of spill response options.
Lee would not speculate on the cost of a national research program or how it would be put together
“We are scientists so we come up with the recommendations. The policies and putting things in place are not our decision,” he said.
Behaviour of Diluted Bitumen Needs More Research
An area pinpointed as needing more research is spill behaviour of diluted bitumen, the tar diluted with condensate that flows from the Alberta oilsands to the B.C. coast.
“It is not a product that is the same every day,” said Lee.
“Depending on the chemistry, some sinks and some floats even under the same conditions. There are a lot of complex interactions and we need that kind of data to make decisions,” he said.
The report acknowledges that heavy oils and dilbit present problems as they do not easily evaporate or dissolve in water.
“Thus their potential damage to the environment, waterfowl and fur-bearing animals is greater. Clean-up of heavy oils and bitumen is extremely difficult for both marine and inland spills because of their specific gravity, viscosity flash point properties and high asphaltene content,” the report states.
Weather and wave action will also affect the behaviour of the oil.
“Every oil spill is different,” Lee said.
The report points out that more research is needed to look at the effect of oil spills on sensitive ecosystems such as Arctic waters and wetlands and the effectiveness of spill response in remote areas.
“Investigations of oil spill effects in Arctic Canada must include collaboration with indigenous peoples to ensure that traditional knowledge is incorporated into our overall understanding of the risks of oil spills in northern locations,” it says.
Sociological factors should also be part of the equation because of public concerns over returning beaches or rivers to their pre-spill state.
Spills should be used as an opportunity to gain information for the national database and that means funding and teams of researchers should be in place and ready to go before the spill occurs, said Lee, who is also advocating for conducting research through small controlled spills.
With Canada producing more than 3.7 million barrels of oil every day, there is always the risk of a spill and the panel suggests the focus should be on prevention of large spills and rapid and effective response to smaller ones.
The questions that need to be asked are whether the risks are acceptable and whether they can be handled and to make those decisions accurate scientific data is needed, Lee said.
The RSC expert panel report was commissioned by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association.
Image: Western Canada Marine Response Corporation