A report by the Royal Society of Canada says there are major research gaps when it comes to understanding the environmental impacts of oil spills in water.
The expert panel is calling for a nationally co-ordinated research program involving academia, government and industry that includes studying controlled oil spills in the field.
The report’s release comes as Canada’s oil producers clamour for ways to get their oil to market and industry critics sound alarms over the safety of moving crude via pipelines, train and tanker.
The panel says the heavy oilsands-derived crude that would move through proposed pipelines such as Energy East and the Trans Mountain Expansion has components that are less likely to break down in water than lighter types of oil.
But the panel cautions the chemical makeup of the crude is only one variable. Weather conditions and response time are big factors in how environmentally damaging a spill ends up being.
The roughly 400-page report was commissioned by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association. But those industry groups did not have a say in who sat on the panel or the content of the final report.
Industry groups and government bodies often enlist the Royal Society — an association that includes some of Canada’s top scientists and scholars — to conduct research on their behalf.
Kenneth Lee, who chaired the seven-member panel, said CAPP and CEPA only saw the report 24 hours before its release.
He said one of the big takeaways is that it’s not necessarily the case that diluted bitumen from the oilsands — often referred as dilbit — is more damaging if spilled into water than other types of crude, given the myriad other factors at play.
“It’s much more than ‘Gee, dilbit’s really bad and light oil evaporates,’” said Lee, director of oceans and atmosphere at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.
“There are so many factors that you have to understand and where’s the data for those areas of risk?”
The National Energy Board is weighing two major oil-pipeline proposals — the Trans Mountain Expansion to the Vancouver area and the Energy East pipeline to New Brunswick. The process has been criticized by environmental and First Nations groups and the new Liberal government has signalled changes are coming.
Lee said it’s not for him to say what the NEB or the federal Natural Resources department ought to do with the report’s findings.
“There are knowledge gaps, but how much risk they’re willing to accept is up to them. That’s something that the regulator does. We’re scientists that provide the facts to them to make those decisions.”
The panel identified seven “high-priority research needs,” which are:
• The impact of oil spills in high-risk and poorly understood areas, such as the Arctic.
• The effects on aquatic wildlife.
• A national baseline research and monitoring program for areas that may be affected by a spill in the future.
• Controlled field research to understand how a spectrum of crude types behave in different ecosystems and conditions.
• Investigating the efficacy of spill response and being able to learn from spills soon after they occur.
• Improved spill prevention.
• Improved risk assessment protocols for oil spills.