A closer look at the impact of oil spills

Queen’s professor co-authors RSC panel report recommending further research to improve clean-up

Major spills in freshwater and marine ecosystems are rare, but critical and significant research gaps still remain in order to prevent future spills and rectify them if they occur, according to a new report co-authored by Queen’s University researcher Peter Hodson (Environmental Studies).

Queen's University researcher Dr. Peter Hodson was one of seven experts selected to take part in a Royal Society of Canada panel report on oil spills.

“The review of case studies of marine, freshwater and Arctic oil spills indicated that it is a combination of site- and spill-specific factors that determine the consequences of a spill,” says Dr. Hodson, who participated in the Royal Society of Canada panel that wrote the recently published report. “The ability to predict or monitor long-term effects is also hampered by a lack of pre-spill baseline information on the mix of species present and the extent to which their resilience to oil exposure is affected by other environmental stressors.”

In the report, the panel recommends the formation of an integrated research program, comprised of government, industry and academic experts, to identify and provide information on regional sites at high risk for spills. This information would be compiled in a national database and would include such information as 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.

The panel calls for further studies of oil spills as they happen, as well as controlled research involving induced spills in order to better understand the effects of such spills. Through these controlled experimental spills, researchers would be better able to determine the effects of spills in a variety of ecosystems, as well as how the properties of different types of oil – such as oil sands bitumen or other unconventional oils – change the dynamics of a spill.

“Research to understand how oil spills affect Canada’s diverse aquatic ecosystems and to develop tools for measuring effects and monitoring post-spill recovery will significantly improve our capacity to assess and minimize risks of future spills,” says Dr. Hodson.

The seven-member RSC panel was commissioned at the request of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The members were asked to address a variety of questions, ranging from how various crude oils compare in their chemical composition and toxicity to organisms to proposals for research investment priorities.

The full text of the report can be found on the Royal Society of Canada website.