Oil spills: science versus politics

11 March 2011 | Article
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As the first anniversary passes of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico which caused the biggest accidental oil spill in history, is the oil industry learning from its mistakes and paying more attention to the environmental risks it poses? We interviewed Dr Brian Dicks at the Oil Spill Risk Management Conference that took place in Sweden recently. Dr Dicks has advised on more than 60 oil spills worldwide.


What lessons, if any, have been learned from the Gulf of Mexico spill and is the oil industry acting on them?

The industry is putting a lot of effort into developing more reliable seabed equipment. It’s also developing safer drilling practices and reviewing its oil spill contingency plans. These measures are potentially valuable but it’s a shame that it took a major accident like the Deepwater Horizon explosion to trigger this level of activity.

Many of the same mistakes made with the cleaning of earlier spills were still being made in the Gulf. These include the inappropriate use of containment booms in areas where they were rapidly destroyed by rough seas, and continued disputes over the use of dispersants even though they were pre-approved for use. It’s clear that the technical guidance provided in contingency plans was not always followed.

Is political interest getting in the way of sound science in terms of effective clean-up approaches?

Plenty of evidence shows that the scale of the US response was driven at least partly by the repeated intervention of politicians and the public. The Gulf of Mexico coastline has extensive marshlands and it’s well established scientifically that if these marshes are left to recover naturally, the damage is reduced and they recover more quickly. Ill-advised attempts to clean marshes can do far more harm than good, yet politicians insisted that the public see these areas being cleaned.

There are conflicting opinions on the scale of the impacts but what is the real situation regarding biodiversity in the Gulf?

As with many other incidents, the media have presented a picture of large scale and long-term damage. There is a lot of data on the environmental impacts of spills and subsequent recovery, and there is no reason to think Deepwater Horizon will be any different. But there is little scientific data yet available on the impacts of this one and it’s unlikely that there will be a clear picture of the damage for some time. Litigation over damages, particularly large claims for alleged fisheries and environmental damage are likely to stand in the way of an objective assessment in the short term.

There’s no doubt that the fishing bans imposed because of oil in the water and oiling of beaches have had serious economic impacts on fisheries and tourism, but it will be difficult to get a reliable scientific evaluation of the impacts on wildlife in the near future. It’s encouraging though that many presenters at the conference say that clean-up, evaporation and natural degradation have removed most of the Deepwater Horizon oil.

What role should the conservation community play in influencing the oil industry to reduce its risks to biodiversity?

There are many examples of where environmental scientists have worked closely with the oil industry to minimize the ecological impacts of its operations. Interaction between whale experts and an oil company through IUCN’s Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel has led to concrete measures to protect the whales. Re-routing pipelines and restructuring seismic surveys, to which whales are particularly sensitive, have helped reduce potential impacts.

However, there is a need for greater cooperation between industry and environmental interests to promote effective spill responses to minimize the damage. The key is to find an efficient mechanism for working together, rather than the adversarial approach taken by activist environmental groups.

What gaps in knowledge need to be filled to make sure industry is prepared for oil and gas exploration in sensitive areas such as the Arctic?

There have been a number of improvements to clean-up response techniques in Arctic and icy conditions in recent years including improvements to oil skimmers, methods of burning off the oil and better chemical dispersant equipment. But whilst some techniques are effective, cleaning up oil in ice will still be a long, slow and difficult process.

Do you think there’s a willingness for meaningful change within the oil industry?

There does seem to be a general willingness for improvement. We’ve heard many calls for improvements to contingency plans, improved ship design and classification for operating in ice, and for better support for oil spill response in ice.

A number of industry initiatives were reported aimed at improving contingency planning and response for oil spills. Statistics from ITOPF, the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, showed a significant reduction in the number and volume of tanker spills. This is clearly linked to the introduction of effective international pollution conventions and other regulations which have improved the operations of the world’s tanker fleet.

Similar improvements have been made to shipping as a whole as a result of international regulations. Both industry and government representatives identify a clear need for comparable international regulation which would apply to offshore installations.

ITOPF also showed examples of the problems which arise if tried and tested contingency plans are not followed because of intervention by politicians. Their message was very clear: stick to technically and scientifically-sound procedures during the clean up and keep politicians out of the spill response!

Dr Brian Dicks, a member of IUCN’s Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel, has advised on more than 60 oil spills worldwide including the Exxon Valdez (USA), Iron Baron (Tasmania) and Erika (France). He has also been involved in numerous post-spill impact studies and in contingency planning to identify marine environmental risks and minimise impacts. In 1987 he joined the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation as a Technical Adviser.


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