NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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National Research Council Releases NOAA-Sponsored Report on Arctic Oil Spills

Healy escorts the tanker Renda through the icy Bering Sea.

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy broke ice for the Russian-flagged tanker Renda on their way to Nome, Alaska, in January of 2012 to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to the city of Nome. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Responding to a potential oil spill in the U.S. Arctic presents unique logistical, environmental, and cultural challenges unparalleled in any other U.S. water body. In our effort to seek solutions to these challenges and enhance our Arctic preparedness and response capabilities, NOAA co-sponsored a report, Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment, directed and released by the National Research Council today.

Several recommendations in the report are of interest to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), including the need for:

  • Up-to-date high-resolution nautical charts and shoreline maps.
  • A real-time Arctic ocean-ice meteorological forecasting system.
  • A comprehensive, collaborative, long-term Arctic oil spill research program.
  • Regularly scheduled oil spill exercises to test and evaluate the flexible and scalable organizational structures needed for a highly reliable Arctic oil spill response.
  • A decision process such as the Net Environmental Benefit Analysis for selecting appropriate response options.

In addition, the report mentions NOAA’s ongoing Arctic efforts including our Arctic Environmental Response Mapping Application (ERMA), our oil spill trajectory modeling, and our innovative data sharing efforts. Find out more about OR&R’s efforts related to the Arctic region at response.restoration.noaa.gov/arctic.

Download the full National Research Council report.

This report dovetails with NOAA’s 2014 Arctic Action Plan, released on April 21, which provides an integrated overview of NOAA’s diverse Arctic programs and how these missions, products, and services support the goals set forth in the President’s National Strategy for the Arctic Region [PDF].

In addition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report [PDF] in March of 2014, which examined U.S. actions related to developing and investing in Arctic maritime infrastructure. The report outlines key issues related to commercial activity in the U.S. Arctic over the next decade.

Get a snapshot of the National Research Council report in this four minute video, featuring some of our office’s scientific models and mapping tools:


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NOAA and Private Industry Share Data to Improve Our Understanding of the Arctic

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Acting Chief of Staff Kate Clark.

The snowy horizon outside Barrow, Alaska, at sunset.

Ongoing and accelerated changes in the Arctic, including the seasonal loss of sea ice and opening up of the Arctic for navigation and commerce, are creating new opportunities for transportation and resource extraction along with a new venue for accidents, spills, and other environmental hazards. Although the Arctic is warming, it will remain a remote and challenging place to work. (NOAA)

Gathering data and information about Arctic air, lands, and waters is critical to NOAA’s missions. We work to protect coastal communities and ensure safe navigation, healthy oceans, effective emergency response, and accurate weather forecasting. But we need to be able to access remote areas of land and ocean to get that information in the first place. The expansive, harsh Arctic environment can make this access risky, expensive, and at times impossible.

The U.S. Arctic is a unique ecosystem that requires unique solutions for solving problems. To continue improving our understanding of the Arctic, NOAA must seek innovative ways to gather essential data about the climate, ocean, and living things in this part of our world.

The Rules of Sharing

We recognize that no single agency or organization has enough resources to do this alone. We have to collaborate our research efforts and share data with others working in the Arctic. An innovative agreement between NOAA and industry [PDF] was signed in August 2011 to help identify and pursue data needs in the Arctic.

This agreement between NOAA, Shell, ConocoPhilips, and Stat Oil sets up a framework for sharing Arctic data in five areas:

  • meteorology.
  • coastal and ocean currents, circulation, and waves.
  • sea ice studies.
  • biological science.
  • hydrographic services and mapping.

Before we incorporate this data into NOAA products and services, we will conduct stringent quality control on all data provided to us under this agreement. Having access to additional high-quality data will improve NOAA’s ability to monitor climate change and provide useful products and services that inform responsible energy exploration activities in the region.

We are committed to openness and transparency in our science.  In addition to reviews to ensure the quality of the data that we receive, NOAA will make the data obtained under this agreement available to the public.

Exactly what data is shared and how it is shared is laid out in a series of annexes to the overarching agreement. NOAA and the three companies have identified the need for at least three annexes. The first [PDF] and second [PDF] are complete. The third, which covers hydrographic services and mapping, is being drafted now.

Why Sharing (Data) Is Caring

This collaboration will leverage NOAA’s scientific expertise and these companies’ significant offshore experience, science initiatives, and expertise. By establishing this data-sharing agreement and the associated annex agreements, NOAA is better equipped to protect the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem. We will be providing the public—including energy companies, mariners, native communities, fishers, and other government agencies—with a stronger scientific foundation, which we believe will better support decision making and safe economic opportunities in this rapidly changing area.

NOAA envisions an Arctic where decisions and actions related to conservation, management, and resource use are based on sound science and support healthy, productive, and resilient communities and ecosystems.

We are working hard, in an era of shrinking budgets, to make sure that we are good stewards of the natural resources found in the Arctic. We will hold our industry partners to our high standards, and make sure that as we learn more, we also prepare for and minimize the risks involved in Arctic oil and gas development and increased maritime transportation.

We look forward to working with these industry partners to implement this data-sharing agreement.  This agreement is the type of innovative partnership we’d like to build with other entities willing to share data and work with us—leveraging the best of what we each can bring to the table.

Learn more about the work NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is doing in the Arctic.

Kate Clark is the Acting Chief of Staff for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. For nearly 12 years she has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has also managed NOAA’s Arctic policy portfolio and served as a senior analyst to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.


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Above, Under, and Through the Ice: Demonstrating Technologies for Oil Spill Response in the Arctic

This is the third in a series of posts about Arctic Shield 2013 by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zach Winters-Staszak. Read his first post, “Arctic-bound” and his second post, “Breaking Ice.”

76° N, 158° W marks the spot. The wind chill has dropped the mercury below zero as the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, an icebreaker, sits idly, anchored by the sea ice that dominates the landscape. All eyes are fixed on the brilliant orange of the Coast Guard zodiac, the small boat’s color contrasted against the cobalt blue water off the icebreaker’s port side. A faint hum of a motor gets louder and louder overhead as the “Puma” comes into view. Then, just as the miniature, remote-controlled aircraft is positioned exactly over a nearby patch of open water, the operator kills the motor and the Puma splashes down safely.

The Puma operator  aboard the Coast Guard zodiak recovers the small unmanned aircraft after demonstrating its capabilities for detecting oil from the air. (NOAA)

The Puma operator aboard the U.S. Coast Guard zodiak recovers the small unmanned aircraft after demonstrating its capabilities for detecting oil from the air during Arctic Shield 2013. (NOAA)

During the exercise Arctic Shield 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) brought a group of scientists and specialists together to demonstrate technologies that potentially could be used for oil spill response in the Arctic Ocean’s severe conditions. This is my third and final post detailing my experiences and involvement in the mission aboard the Healy; you can read the previous posts, “Arctic-bound” and “Breaking Ice.”

Existing Technology, New Applications

The Arctic Ocean remains a difficult to access and often dangerous environment.

The Arctic Ocean remains a difficult to access and often dangerous environment. (NOAA)

Increased marine transportation and oil exploration in the Arctic increases the likelihood of, along with the responsibility to be prepared for, potential oil spills. Operating in an area as remote and ice-filled as the Arctic poses new logistical and tactical challenges for safe ship transit, search and rescue efforts, resource extraction, and oil spill response. For those of us working in oil spill response, this means developing new methods and technologies for surveying, assessing, and responding in these settings.

The RDC, coordinating efforts by the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, demonstrated the Puma as one method to survey, identify, and monitor oil on and around the ice floes from above. The Puma is a battery-powered, aerial survey technology with military roots that is now being used for a variety of environmental applications.

The Puma’s advantages for oil spill response in the Arctic are many. With its capacity for high resolution and infrared imagery, the Puma could help identify and monitor oiled environments and wildlife during response efforts, while simultaneously creating a visual record of environmental injury that could be used during a Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division has a long history of recording aerial imagery of oil spills by using trained observers aboard helicopters or airplanes to find and photograph oil on the water’s surface. Using a UAS like the Puma removes the risk to human safety, requires batteries and not fuel, and has been shown to have little-to-no influence on the behavior of wildlife. In fact, NOAA has already used Pumas to great effect during marine mammal and sea bird surveys.

This last point is especially important when you consider an animal like the Pacific walrus. With recent, dramatic summer losses in sea ice, Pacific walruses have been seen congregating en masse on the shoreline of Alaska, a behavior happening earlier and earlier in the year. Disturbance of these large groups of walruses, which could be caused by noisy surveying techniques, creates panic in the animals, causing a stampede that could end up trampling and killing young walruses.

Pumas Fly but Jaguars Swim

While the Pumas were busy scanning the ice and sea from the sky, scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute were fast at work deploying their “Jaguar” beneath the water. The Jaguar is an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) designed to map the Arctic sea floor, but during Arctic Shield 2013, the science team instead used it to map the curves and channels on the underside of the sea ice.

For example, if an oil spill occurred near an ice floe, responders would need to know where oil could pool up or be funneled in the curves or channels beneath the sea ice. The Jaguar uses acoustic technology to map the differences in sea ice thickness or “draft” as it travels along its programmed path under the ice. A suite of oceanographic sensors are also installed that measure water temperature, conductivity, pressure, and salinity along the way. In addition, scientists can install an optical back-scatter sensor that can detect oil in the water column.

To top things off, the Jaguar’s footprint is relatively low. The entire system is easily shipped, only requires a three-person team to operate, and doesn’t need a large vessel like the Healy to be deployed. Having a highly functional, low-impact tool is a major advantage out on the Arctic Ocean.

A Mapping Tool Made for the Arctic

It was with remote environments like the Arctic in mind that the Office of Response and Restoration developed Stand-alone ERMA, an internet-independent version of our Arctic ERMA online mapping tool used in response efforts for oil spills, hazardous waste spills, and ship groundings. My role in Arctic Shield was to integrate and display the data collected by the technologies I just described into Stand-alone ERMA. ERMA integrates multiple data sources and displays them in a single interactive map. With the resulting data-rich map, I could demonstrate the advantage of establishing a common operational picture during an oil spill response scenario—all without an internet connection.

A view from Arctic ERMA, NOAA's online mapping tool for environmental disasters. You can see the path of the icebreaker Healy, the Puma's flight, and the photos and their location taken by the Puma.

A view from Arctic ERMA, NOAA’s online mapping tool for environmental disasters. You can see the path of the icebreaker Healy, the Puma’s flight, and the photos and their location taken by the Puma. (NOAA)

During Arctic Shield 2013, Stand-alone ERMA was integrated into the ship’s local network, and as new data were recorded and displayed, everyone on the ship, from the bridge to the science decks, could view the same results on their computer screens.

In a typical oil spill response, you can have decision makers from federal, state, and local governments; private industry; and a multitude of scientists and technicians all working together. Everyone needs access to the same information, especially when it is constantly changing, in order to make the most informed decisions. But if internet availability is sporadic or nonexistent (not unusual in the Alaskan Arctic), most common operational pictures are rendered inoperable. Stand-alone ERMA bridges that gap, while providing the same experience and tools found with the online version. Demonstrating the utility of Stand-alone ERMA aboard the Healy made the advantages of a flexible common operational picture very clear.

Mind the Gaps (and Bridge Them)

The purpose of these demonstrations during Arctic Shield 2013 was to identify technologies that could improve oil spill response capabilities in the Arctic environment. Not all of the technologies being demonstrated were recently developed or even developed specifically for oil spill response. The Coast Guard Research and Development Center, which organized the demonstration, has taken a critical look at the difficulties and challenges associated with operating in an icy ocean environment. As a result they have identified a wide variety of technologies—some of which we demonstrated on this trip—that could potentially improve response during an actual oil spill. Still, a great deal of work remains as we work to better understand Arctic ecosystems and overcome the challenges of stewardship in a new and uncertain period in our history.

The only trace of a polar bear were these tracks in the snow and ice as the Healy plowed past.

The only trace of a polar bear were these tracks in the snow and ice as the Healy plowed past. (NOAA)

Looking over the bow of the Healy as the ship fractured the ice beneath, I caught a brief glimpse of polar bear tracks in the snow. The animal itself was nowhere to be seen, but as I watched the tracks fade into the distance, I was reminded of why I was there. When you’re out on the ice, breathing in the frigid air, knowing that polar bears are out there hunting and raising cubs, you realize what is right in front of you is the only place like it in the world. Being a part of Arctic Shield 2013 was an incredibly rewarding and humbling experience, one that is helping me figure out what data we still need and develop the tools to strengthen our ability to respond to an oil spill.

Zach Winters-StaszakZach Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with OR&R’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.


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After Sandy, Adapting NOAA’s Tools for a Changing Shoreline

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. NOAA and our partners are making sure that we have the most up-to-date tools and resources for whenever the next disaster strikes. To learn more about how you can be prepared for all types of emergencies, visit www.ready.gov.

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Vicki Loe and Jill Petersen.

While the beach season has come to an end for the East Coast, communities of the northeast continue to repair remaining damage from last fall’s Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy and prepare for future storms. As beachgoers arrived at the shore this past summer, they found a lot of repaired structures and beautiful beaches. But this was side-by-side with reconstruction projects, damaged buildings, and altered shorelines.

In addition to damaging manmade structures, Sandy’s strong winds and waves caused considerable change to shorelines, particularly in the metropolitan New York area, northern Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Tools for Coastal Disasters

In the wake of Sandy, under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, funds were allocated to update the Office of Response and Restoration’s existing northeast Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps to reflect changes caused by the storm and to add information that would enhance the maps’ value when another disaster strikes. Historically used mostly for oil and chemical spills, these maps have also proved to be effective tools in preparing for and responding to storms and hurricanes.

ESI maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that could be at risk in a disaster. Examples include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks). They are used by both disaster responders during a disaster and planners before a disaster.

Segment of an existing Environmental Sensitivity Index map of the New Jersey coast.

Segment of an existing Environmental Sensitivity Index map of the New Jersey coast. Used in conjunction with a key, this map provides valuable information to planners and responders on the wildlife, habitats, and geographical features of the area.

In the region affected by Sandy, maps will be updated from Maine to South Carolina. The ESI maps are produced on a state or regional basis. They typically extend offshore to include all state waters, and go inland far enough to include coastal biology and human use resources. In addition to the outer coastal regions, navigable rivers, bays, and estuaries are included. In the northeast, these include the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay, which are among those maps being updated with the Sandy funding, as well as Delaware Bay, which was already in progress before the storm hit.

The first region to be updated will be Long Island Sound. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is partnering with the Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA) in NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science to develop the biological and human use information for this region. This partnership will take advantage of studies CCMA currently has underway, as well as contacts they have made with the biological experts in the area.

Keeping up with a Changing Shoreline

A large wildlife conservation area that is managed by Bass River State Forest at the north end of Brigantine Island, a popular beach destination located on the New Jersey coast. (NOAA)

You can see representative coastal habitat in a large wildlife conservation area managed by Bass River State Forest at the north end of Brigantine Island, a popular beach destination located on the New Jersey coast. (NOAA)

The coastal environment is constantly changing and ESI maps need to be updated periodically to reflect not just storm damage, but changes to resources caused by human use, erosion, and climate change. The new maps will be created with a broad range of potential disasters in mind. To support this goal, some additional data elements and layers are being considered for the ESI maps developed as part of our post-Sandy effort. These may include such things as flood inundation and storm surge areas, environmental monitoring stations, tide stations, and offshore renewable energy sites.

The end products will provide emergency planners and responders with a better tool for protecting the northeast and mid-Atlantic shoreline when the next coastal disaster occurs.

You can learn more about our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps in our blog post “Mapping How Sensitive the Coasts Are to Oil Spills,” and find more technical insights into our work with ESI maps and data on the NOAA ESI blog at noaaesi.wordpress.com.

Jill PetersenJill Petersen began working with the NOAA spill response group in 1988. Originally a programmer and on-scene responder, in 1991 her focus switched to mapping support, a major component of which is the ESI program. Throughout the years, Jill has worked to broaden the ESI audience by providing ESIs in a variety of formats and developing appropriate mapping tools. Jill has been the ESI program manager since 2001.


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Arctic-bound: Testing Oil Spill Response Technologies Aboard an Icebreaker

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. The following story shows one way NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is preparing for a potential oil spill emergency in the Arctic. To learn more about how you can be prepared for other types of emergencies, visit www.ready.gov.

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zach Winters-Staszak.

Polar bear tracks crisscrossed by artic fox on sea ice, Barrow, Alaska.

Polar bear tracks crisscrossed by artic fox on sea ice, Barrow, Alaska. (NOAA/Zach Winters-Staszak)

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions “the Arctic”? For me, it’s the polar bear.

As a mapping specialist for OR&R’s Arctic ERMA project, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Arctic communities of Barrow, Wainwright, and Kotzebue, Alaska. On those trips, I’ve been lucky enough to witness a snowy owl (Barrow’s namesake), arctic hare, and caribou. Once, I even hired a local expert to take me on an “Arctic safari” to see a polar bear; the tracks we found were less than 12 hours old, but the polar bear itself continues to elude me.

On my upcoming trip to the Arctic, however, my chances are greatly improved; this time I’m headed out to sea.

An Arctic Expedition

This week, I’m returning to Barrow to join the U.S. Coast Guard and a team of scientists for two weeks aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy where we’ll take part in Arctic Shield 2013. Once we are aboard the icebreaker, the team will travel to the edge of the sea ice and begin a drill scenario to test oil spill response technologies in the remote and challenging environment of the Arctic Ocean.

The technologies being tested range from unmanned aircraft systems gathering data from above to remotely operated vehicles searching under the ice to skimmers that are designed to collect oil on the ocean’s surface. The purpose of this hands-on drill is to gain a better understanding of the challenges involved in responding to a theoretical Arctic oil spill at sea and then define the advantages and any constraints of existing technologies to improve our ability to respond to an actual spill.

Connecting the Dots of Data

As the seasonal extent of Arctic sea ice continues to contract and thin, energy exploration and transportation activities will likely continue to increase in the region, escalating the risk of oil spills and accidents. In anticipation, NOAA and interagency partners are actively preparing for these possible emergencies, and Arctic Shield is a great example of this.

This view of the online mapping program Arctic ERMA shows the approximate path of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy from Barrow, Alaska, to the edge of the sea ice, indicated on the map in yellow. Red shows higher concentrations of sea ice.

This view of the online mapping program Arctic ERMA shows the approximate path of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy from Barrow, Alaska, to the edge of the sea ice, indicated on the map in yellow. Red shows higher concentrations of sea ice. (NOAA)

My role will be to connect the various streams of data the science teams will be collecting and incorporate them into a new version of ERMA, our online mapping tool for environmental response. This latest “stand-alone” version of the tool functions like previous versions of ERMA, except it doesn’t need an internet connection. It is common for communities in the Arctic region and for many coastal areas of Alaska to have spotty internet coverage, if coverage is available at all. Stand-alone ERMA is able to map and organize information in a centralized, easy-to-use format for environmental responders and decision-makers when internet connectivity is unreliable.

As you read this post, I’ll be on a plane traveling north. I expect the first week on the ship will be packed full of activity, but I hope the following week will allow me to write more about my experiences during the cruise. If there is enough internet bandwidth, I’ll be posting developments from the Healy. I hope to include information about the technologies being tested, life on the ship, and photos of wildlife. And if I haven’t jinxed myself by now, maybe one of those photos will include a polar bear.

Zach Winters-StaszakZach Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with OR&R’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.


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Watching Chemical Dispersants at Work in an Oil Spill Research Facility

Aerial view of Ohmsett and its 2.6 million-gallon salt water tank.

The Ohmsett facility is located at Naval Weapons Station Earle, Waterfront. The research and training facility centers around a 2.6 million-gallon saltwater tank. (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

Last week I had the chance to go back to Leonardo, New Jersey, to observe an oil spill dispersant exercise at the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility known as Ohmsett (the Oil and Hazardous Material Simulated Environmental Test Tank). Ohmsett is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). The facility features a large saltwater test tank that allows for full-scale testing of oil spill response equipment and technologies. This tank has a large wave generator to simulate the type of conditions seen in the open ocean.

Dispersant use became a national topic of discussion following the explosion and subsequent well blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20, 2010. The unprecedented use of chemical dispersants on and below the ocean’s surface during this oil spill raised scientific, public, and political questions about both their effectiveness and their potential consequences for ecosystems and marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although dispersants get a lot of attention, I’ve worked on hundreds of oil spills over the past 20 years, and during that time, I’ve only worked on a handful of spills where dispersants were used. Furthermore, I’ve never had a chance to observe directly how dispersants work. The Ohmsett facility provided that opportunity in a controlled setting that still simulated real-world, open ocean conditions.

Here is a series of photos I took from one of the tests:

Freshly spilled crude oil in the Ohmsett saltwater test tank.

Freshly spilled crude oil in the Ohmsett saltwater test tank.

A few minutes after dispersants applied. Note that some of the oil is still black, but some is turning brown.

A few minutes after dispersants were applied. Note that some of the oil is still black, but some is turning brown.

Now most of the oil is brown, and instead of being on the surface, it is now suspended in small droplets in the top couple feet of the pool.

Now most of the oil is brown, and instead of being on the surface, it is now suspended in small droplets in the top couple feet of the pool.

Now the oil is completely mixed in the water.

Now the oil is completely mixed in the water.

So what do these tests demonstrate? Dispersants can be effective in removing oil from the surface of the water. Breaking the oil into tiny droplets doesn’t remove oil from the water, but it does help to increase the rate of biodegradation.

What these tests don’t tell you is the biological effect of mixing the oil in the water, as opposed to leaving it on the sea surface. Leaving oil on the surface will increase the potential exposure to birds, mammals, and shorelines, while dispersing oil will increase exposure to fish and other animals living in the water column. The decision to use dispersants or other response strategies will always involve a careful evaluation of the environmental benefits and trade-offs of the particular situation and location.

To help answer some of these trade-off questions, NOAA, in between spills, continues to study dispersants and their potential effects on the marine resources that we are trying to protect.


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NOAA Hosts Forum Exploring Oil Sands and the Challenges of When They Spill

Water and sediment sampling on Morrow Lake near Battle Creek, Mich., during the response to the Enbridge pipeline spill of oil sands product. August 2, 2010 (U.S. Coast Guard)

Water and sediment sampling on Morrow Lake near Battle Creek, Mich., during the response to the Enbridge pipeline spill of oil sands product. August 2, 2010 (U.S. Coast Guard)

Unless there is a big spill or accident, most people probably don’t think much about different types of crude oil, where it comes from, or how it is transported.

Yet there is an ongoing national debate about Canada’s Alberta oil sands and whether to complete the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry Alberta oil sands products to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast. This proposed pipeline has gotten a lot of attention, but there are existing pipelines carrying oil sands products around Canada and across the border into the U.S., as well as tanker, barge, and rail operations doing the same.

The Exxon Pegasus pipeline spill in Mayflower, Ark., on March 29, 2013, was a reminder that oil sands are already being transported and, whenever oil is transported, there is risk of a spill.

Oil sands are considered an unconventional oil type that has been growing in prominence as oil prices fluctuate and production technologies improve. As a result, there are many questions about how best to respond to spills of crude oil products derived from oil sands. One of the major concerns is the buoyancy of oil sands products, and their potential to sink, especially in sediment-laden waters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still cleaning up submerged oil from the July 2010 Enbridge pipeline spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

Last week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration participated in an Oil Sands Products Forum held at NOAA’s Western Regional Center in Seattle, Wash. The forum was sponsored by the Washington State Department of Ecology Spills Program, U.S. Coast Guard, and the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force. The University of New Hampshire Center for Spills in the Environment facilitated the forum.

The two-day meeting included a full day of presentations and discussions about oil sands (also known as tar sands or bitumen) and their related products—covering everything from extraction, refining, and transportation to chemistry, how they move and react in the environment, and recent case studies of spill responses. Over 50 environmental specialists, oil spill planners, and responders attended from government agencies, tribal governments, nongovernmental organizations, and industry.  Several oil sands experts from Canadian agencies and organizations also attended and presented.

On the second day, spill responders were presented with four different spill scenarios involving oil sands products, and the potential issues and challenges highlighted by the different spill situations were thoroughly discussed and recorded. Presentations and meeting notes will be made available through the Center for Spills in the Environment.  The focus of this forum was not to discuss whether or not oil sands should be exploited as a resource, but rather, how to prepare better for and then deal effectively with a spill of oil sands products when it happens.

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