Shedding light on oil behaviors before the next spill

November 25, 2015, New Jersey Institute of Technology

A comprehensive scientific report released today by The Royal Society of Canada (RSC) has concluded that there are still critical research gaps hampering efforts to both assess the environmental impacts of crude oil spills and to effectively remediate them.

The report, "The Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into Aqueous Environments," is designed to help the oil industry improve spill preparedness and response capabilities. It recommends prioritized research on the chemistry, properties and spill behavior of various types of , from oil sands bitumen, to diluted bitumen, to other unconventional oils.

"There are essentially three challenge areas. We still don't know enough about tar sand oil, or bitumen, which takes longer to break down due to its high viscosity, but doesn't spread, we also don't know much about the behavior of oil from a blowout, such as the Deepwater Horizon BP blowout, and we know little of how crude oil behaves in the Arctic Ocean, where there is ice, or how to remediate it," said Michel Boufadel, director of NJIT's Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection and a member of the panel of experts charged with evaluating the impact of spills in Northern waters.

"Due to global warming, oil exploration in the Arctic has become feasible along with the shipment of oil through the Northwest Passage, the water body between Canada and the Arctic that used to be frozen throughout the year, but has now become open for navigation in the summer," noted Boufadel, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who specializes in the impact of oil spills on coastal regions and, more generally, on oil behavior in diverse environments.

The panel, convened at the request of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, has also recommended more research 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. The panel urged more work as well 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.

"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 Kenneth Lee, the director of Oceans and Atmosphere, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Perth, Western Australia and chair of the seven-member panel.

Boufadel called the report an important step toward the development of informed, responsive policy around spills.

"After the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico, there was no holistic report focused on the behavior of oil spills," he noted. "However, considering the amount of funding that emerged since then, it was timely to summarize these works and make recommendations for future directions."

The RSC report, although focused on Canada, is directly applicable to northern U.S. states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Alaska, which either produce or transport large volumes of oil, Boufadel said.

Late last year, he was appointed to a National Academy of Sciences committee tasked with assessing the environmental impact of spills of the heavy Canadian crude oil known as oil sand. That committee will determine whether oil sand differs sufficiently from other crude oils transported in U.S. pipelines to warrant modifications of the regulations governing spill preparedness, response plans and cleanups.

Since its establishment in 2012, the Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection has received several major grants from the federal government, as well as international institutions and agencies, to investigate behaviors in the environment. Boufadel provided technical analyses and remedial strategies in response to the two largest in U.S. history, the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez spills.

Explore further: A complete solution for oil-spill cleanup

Related Stories

A complete solution for oil-spill cleanup

October 3, 2012

Scientists are describing what may be a "complete solution" to cleaning up oil spills—a superabsorbent material that sops up 40 times its own weight in oil and then can be shipped to an oil refinery and processed to recover ...

Team working to safeguard the shoreline

September 11, 2014

An NJIT research team has estimated the total mass of oil that reached the Gulf of Mexico shore in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout. It's the first time such an estimate was reported, and the study is published ...

Recommended for you

Evidence of earliest life on Earth disputed

October 17, 2018

When Australian scientists presented evidence in 2016 of life on Earth 3.7 billon years ago—pushing the record back 220 million years—it was a big deal, influencing even the search for life on Mars.

Arctic greening thaws permafrost, boosts runoff

October 17, 2018

A new collaborative study has investigated Arctic shrub-snow interactions to obtain a better understanding of the far north's tundra and vast permafrost system. Incorporating extensive in situ observations, Los Alamos National ...

Arctic ice sets speed limit for major ocean current

October 17, 2018

The Beaufort Gyre is an enormous, 600-mile-wide pool of swirling cold, fresh water in the Arctic Ocean, just north of Alaska and Canada. In the winter, this current is covered by a thick cap of ice. Each summer, as the ice ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.