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Oil Spill Biological Impact Assessment

Monday, April 24, 2017

Oil Spill Biological Impact Assessment

The Lofoten islands in Norway, present a case study of how environmentalists have successfully opposed the drilling of lucrative oil reservoirs. Specifically, these oil reservoirs are located in the spawning grounds of commercially important fish stocks such as cod. This has driven research into the oil spill environmental impact prediction.

Industry good practice is used to inform on-the-ground response actions, but there is a growing push within academia and industry to develop more data-driven approaches. During my time at OSRL, I looked into the methods used to assess the biological impact of oil spills, which formed the basis of my MSc Oceanography degree research project.

Scenario specific Spill Impact Mitigation Assessment (SIMA) is the future of oil spill response decision making. This is a process in which responders compare the effects of different response actions, e.g. observation and no intervention, responding with dispersant, or using controlled burning. Biological impact assessment is fundamental to minimising impact to human and environmental health.

Scientists use numerical models to simulate oil spills and estimate the environmental impact of the released oil, such as the number of fish that would be killed. Interestingly, fish eggs and larvae are some of the most hydrocarbon-sensitive organisms in the water column. But this is not a simple equation. Spatial and temporal patchiness of marine organisms, together with variation in sensitivity between different species and life stages (e.g. haddock eggs actively stick to oil droplets) makes biological impact assessment a real challenge. Add to this the complexity of crude oils, each with their own distinct chemical composition.

Despite the complexity, biological impact assessment modelling is improving, and some developers are well on the way to achieving a working commercial solution. OSCAR (which stands for Oil Spill Contingency and Response) is the model used at OSRL for preparedness modelling and planning (and occasionally response). OSCAR is developed by a Norwegian research institute called SINTEF (a Norwegian acronym which translates as the Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research), and is at the cutting edge of biological impact modelling. A competitor company, RPS ASA (the developers behind the OILMAP model OSRL use for response modelling), is developing a similar model called SIMAP. Although some companies advertise biological impact modelling services, the reliability of the results is debatable.

Further development is needed to validate them, but these models will have a large range of applications within the oil industry. Until then, a key challenge of oil spill biological impact modelling is to balance model reliability with commercial practicality.