Why Preparing for Oiled Wildlife Emergencies Still Matters in the Energy Transition
In an operating environment with a heightened focus on the transition to renewable energy sources and the goal of net-zero carbon emissions, there is intense public pressure and expectation that environmental protection will be at the forefront of economic activities. As government and industry look beyond oil, it is critical that environmental risk from oil spills, including wildlife impact, stays squarely in focus.
In a rapidly shifting strategiac environment where the energy transition is increasingly taking centre stage, do the previous industry commitments to implementing preparedness and fully integrating wildlife response capability still matter? The short answer is yes.
Wildlife response has come a long way
In 2015, new guidance on oil spill tiered preparedness and response was published by IPIECA – the global oil and gas industry association for advancing environmental and social performance. The guidance depicted good practice in an evolved, holistic model known as the tiered preparedness and response (TPR) wheel. For the first time at a global level, this model recognised wildlife response as one of the core capabilities in any oil spill preparedness system.
This recognition was a significant milestone in the field of oiled wildlife response and the culmination of many years’ work by a core group of advocates from industry, government and non-governmental stakeholders. These changemakers helped to champion this more formal inclusion of what was historically a largely separate and volunteer-led endeavour and which, over time, has become a professional, scientific and animal welfare-based undertaking.
Integration efforts have included a multi-year oil industry commitment to financially support an initiative to engage with leading wildlife response organisations in developing a more formal international response framework.
However, transferring defined industry good practice on paper, into real-world preparedness across the globe has been challenged by competing priorities. These include the coronavirus pandemic and the heightened focus on moving away from fossil fuels to tackle the climate crisis by reaching net-zero carbon emissions.
In the context of the pivot away from fossil fuels, what are the critical actions in the years ahead to truly embed a good practice approach to preparing for wildlife emergencies? How might these efforts support wildlife protection beyond mitigating the impact of oil spills?
Placing wildlife at the heart of any incident management system
Historically, wildlife response was only considered if a few animals inadvertently became oiled because of a pollution incident. A more appropriate mindset is to prioritise efforts to prevent animals from becoming oiled in the first place while ensuring systems are in place to respond rapidly and effectively to preserve life in the event of oiling.
Wildlife populations move and change through each day and season. Understanding the abundances and whereabouts of wildlife populations is critical to ensuring primary and secondary oil spill response strategies – keeping oil away from animals (and their habitats) and keeping animals away from oil - are employed decisively and effectively. Accurate data and input from wildlife biologists and responders with local knowledge and know-how should inform strategies. Individuals make up wildlife populations, and thus, organisations must design wildlife response strategies with this in mind, especially when endangered or threatened species are at risk.
Such an approach ensures that all the resources directed at mitigating the spill's impact have wildlife protection in mind. This approach ensures that rather than being an add-on to response efforts, the effect on wildlife is at the heart of any strategic decision-making about the deployment of resources and response strategies. It ensures that organisations make every effort to prevent animals from becoming oiled and that they are ready to respond to oiled animals, if necessary.
Turning written plans into real-world capability
Despite some exceptions, oiled wildlife response capability is underdeveloped (or non-existent) in many countries worldwide. Writing a wildlife response plan is essential to address any identified risks, but it is just the beginning of the preparedness journey.
The capability and resources required and referenced in the plan might not yet exist, or other organisations may hold the required resources. In this case, the work now begins to implement preparedness over time through equipment investments, personnel training and exercises, and bringing all stakeholders together. This work is a multi-year endeavour.
One obstacle to implementing preparedness is that the best can most certainly be the enemy of the good. Therefore, it is essential to be realistic and plan actions and events that allow organisations to take crucial steps, make progress, and build momentum over time. The aim is to implement the TPR wheel, not reinvent it, and so site-specific plans should consider how best to cascade resources from further afield when needed.
Industry can also call on expert organisations to help train local responders or upskill individuals or organisations with relevant expertise in, e.g., veterinary medicine, animal husbandry and fieldwork that may lack experience dealing with oiled wildlife.
The public expects environmental protection to be at the heart of oil-related activities
In applying the PEAR principle (People, Environment, Assets, Reputation) to incident management, mitigating the impact on the environment is second only to human safety in any emergency response to a pollution incident. Taking an ecosystem approach requires consideration of both sensitive habitats and the wildlife populations that inhabit them. Now more than ever, the public expects environmental protection to be at the heart of oil-related activities. Therefore, government and industry must keep their eye on the ball to mitigate any potential impact on wildlife during the energy transition and given that oil spill risk will remain for the foreseeable future.
With wildlife populations worldwide suffering from a variety of anthropogenic challenges, including overfishing, climate change and habitat reduction, it is critical that for any oil spill risk, the necessary planning and response capability is in place to minimise the potential for any wildlife casualties. Therefore, any planning efforts should begin with a thorough assessment of the operational and site-specific risks. The assessment should be followed up with a planning process to define strategies and to define and implement the local (Tier 1), national or regional (Tier 2) and international (Tier 3) response capability required to meet and mitigate those risks.
Shifting mindsets, changing incident management DNA
The fail-safe approach is to adopt a mindset that wildlife preparedness and response is not an optional or secondary aspect of oil spill planning, but a core part of integrated response readiness. Adopting this mindset may require concerted efforts to shift organisational culture and increase awareness of and consideration for wildlife emergency preparedness over time. It may also require changes in company policies and programmes, as well as national legislation. However, it is a shift that aligns with changing and evolving values in society as the need for immediate and dramatic shifts in how we relate with and preserve the natural environment become more apparent. It is also one that aligns with good practice in oil spill preparedness and response as it is now defined.
The viewpoint that wildlife response is integral to oil spill preparedness and response has evolved based on lessons learned from incidents, changes in regulatory requirements and efforts to improve techniques and professionalise response efforts. Geographical and social contexts have also played a key role: elevating the protection of wildlife to align with cultural beliefs and values in some instances. In other contexts, socio-economic challenges have limited the will and the ability to prioritise wildlife protection.
Irrespective of location and cultural setting, the planning process itself is an essential journey for any operator or emergency planner, even if the scale and scope of planning outcomes look different according to the location. Analysing the risk to wildlife, developing desired response objectives and strategies to mitigate that risk and, over time, ensuring sufficient response capability is in place to respond effectively are all critical steps in the journey.
Failing to properly consider wildlife risk is a potential exposure that could result in various incident and crisis management challenges. The dangers of not assessing the risk include public safety (if inexperienced but concerned citizens undertake efforts to rescue wildlife), individual animal suffering and impact on wildlife populations and sensitive ecosystems, as well as public perception issues.
Without investment, the generation change in the oiled wildlife response community may lead to skills fade
A generation change is underway in the oiled wildlife response community. Without sustained funding for leading wildlife response organisations to enable good succession planning, there is a real risk that the know-how to respond to wildlife emergencies successfully (oiled or otherwise) may fade. While the field has professionalised over the past fifty years, funding oiled wildlife response organisations has often been considered discretionary. Thus, many leading organisations have struggled to sustainably fund the year-round rehabilitation and response programmes that develop and maintain their skills and experience to care for animals in crisis.
Often these organisations are relied upon to answer the call for help when asked. Still, it is also falsely assumed that they receive reliable funding to maintain this capability, which is not necessarily the case. This reliance on non-guaranteed financings such as donations and one-off grants could result in a gradual decline in their operational ability over time, and one day they might not be there to answer the call when needed. We cannot and should not take their services and deep expertise built over decades of hands-on experience for granted.
Moreover, as wildlife populations struggle to cope with other threats from overfishing, climate change and plastic pollution these same organisations will be able to make a difference in other types of wildlife emergencies when there is no clearly identified responsible party. In turn, these rescue efforts serve as training and exercise opportunities to keep skills sharp for oil spill response efforts.
At an international level, several leading wildlife response organisations have proposed a Tier 3 response service to support industry preparedness by complementing and catalysing in-country preparedness efforts. However, the more significant benefit of this initiative is that it also aims to improve the sustainability and resilience of the organisations involved. In this sense, it is not just guaranteeing wildlife response assistance; it is helping ensure that wildlife response organisations will always be there when needed and that their unique knowledge and expertise is protected.
Oiled wildlife response as an integrated oil spill response discipline should therefore remain front and centre in the minds of operators and emergency planners, and recent commitments to improving the preparedness for wildlife emergencies according to defined good practice should continue.
Despite the energy transition away from fossil fuels and towards a net-zero future, the risk of oil spills remains. Investing in preparedness at a local, national, and international level will help ensure that the impact of these incidents on wildlife can be minimised. It will also contribute in part to sustaining the knowledge and experience needed to respond to wildlife at risk from oil activities as well as from other anthropogenic threats.
Such an approach meets agreed good practice in oil spill response preparedness. Furthermore, in an increasingly connected world dealing with shared environmental threats and challenges, the public expects government and industry to be proactive and prepared. It is also what we should expect of ourselves.