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Rethinking Oil-Spill Response

In RESTCo’s work on self-sufficiency for remote communities, we have put considerable work into researching the current energy paradigm, particularly with a view to reducing dependence on external sources, the climate change impact of energy infrastructure choices, and the impact of current practices.

One result of this work is an increased awareness of the consequences of oil spills, and how common small spills are (daily occurrence), as well as of the need to combat major spill events (e.g., in 2014 Southern Star VII, Trans-Israel pipeline spill, Mid-Valley pipeline spill, Houston Ship Channel collision spill; in 2013, North Dakota train collision, North Dakota pipeline spill, Lac-Mégantic train explosion/fire/spills, Mayflower Arkansas pipeline rupture, Magnolia refinery spill, and so on from the Pennsylvania 'gusher' spills before 1900, and including 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 2010 Kalamazoo pipeline rupture which are still far from cleaned up or remediated).

RESTCo benefits from the particular knowledge of one of our principals, who worked on oil spill science research in the Beaufort Sea area in the 1970s, and has a continuing interest in the topic (currently working on relevant ISO standards in this area).

RESTCo has devoted a lot of time and effort to this subject area since 2010 (when we incorporated), and our principals had already worked the subject prior. In 2011, RESTCo was an intervener in the Canadian National Energy Board hearing related to offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. RESTCo sponsored and hosted the Ottawa Forum in September 2011 to discuss scenarios, approaches and technologies related to oil spills and response plans. It was a valuable experience, when we determined that supposition and mythology greatly outweigh science and evidence in regulatory and media conversations on the subject. The industry track record on oil-spill recovery and remediation is uniformly awful, being based on decades-old technology and outmoded approaches. While small spills are daily occurrences everywhere in the industrialized world, major spills are rare events with substantial consequences, akin to house-fires on the probability vs. consequences risk map.

From RESTCo's perspective, typical response approaches at both ends of the scale rate as failures.

In the case of frequent, small spills, the standard approach is to use an absorbent (sawdust, kitty-litter, one-use industrial absorbent pads, powder sponge), to soak up the liquid as best one can, shovel the mixture into a temporary transport container, and take it to a toxic waste site for disposal. In the end, the leaked material of value and the absorbent are rendered into a larger mass of toxic waste, which remains a health and physical hazard until it is permanently disposed of (usually buried) at a special waste management site.

In the case of large infrequent spills, the industry's standard approach requires a time-consuming evaluation of the event, then equipment is diverted from other duties, reconfigured, moved to one of a very limited number of main response bases, loaded, and then deployed to the spill site. This approach typically takes days, sometimes weeks, by which time the spill response area has grown geometrically with each passing hour, and may have generated secondary events (e.g., evacuations like that in Mayflower Arkansas) or massive multi-zone spill areas (like the Macondo blowout with oil in the water column above the leak site, surface oil spreading in all directions, and shore-line oil contact). Macondo occurred in the U.S. oil industry’s front yard, in warm weather conditions, and made mainstream media headlines within minutes of the event due to the explosion, fire, loss of lives and injuries. It still took days to mount even the initial token spill response. At Kalamazoo, the pipeline company took 14 hours to recognize a major rupture and spill event had occurred, and only noticed then because an individual - not associated with the company - notified them of the problem.

The oil and gas industry universally says it embraces a ‘safety culture’. Many independent observers say that its track record does not bear this out, and examination of the Macondo event has led courts to find that BP was negligent in its operations, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from a ‘safety culture’. RESTCo does not have the resources to make major strides in the area of spill prevention and detection by the oil majors, but we thought we could contribute in the area of creating an effective spill response methodology. (RESTCo is currently contributing to international standards work related to spill detection and monitoring. To date, our contributions to spill prevention have been indirect.)

RESTCO's approach to the issue is markedly different from that of the oil industry, because we start by examining the consequences and measuring the performance of the response effort from a holistic economic and environmental perspective. (There’s no market for the oil if we kill off all the humans.)

RESTCo is not against the use of oil. We are opposed to profligate waste of valuable resources, and poisoning of our shared environment. Oil spills are both wasteful and damaging to our environment.

For at least four decades, oil industry's spill response has boiled down to saying "this is the technology we developed in the 1960s to respond to oil spills on water, and we have learned how to use it for maximum effectiveness since then". The primary tool set consists of booms and scooping; accelerants to burn the slicks (as weathered oil typically will not ignite on its own); and chemicals. Sadly, even after over 40 years experience, the outcomes are not acceptable. In many cases, the strategy is still to ignore spills on open water, only addressing them when the slicks reach shore.

Spills on land are almost always treated as 'mop-up' operations, generating masses of solid, wet toxic waste, occasionally with land remediation following.

RESTCo has reached a number of conclusions as a result of its research and work in the area of oil spill response. The industry talks of response and remediation, but does not effectively address the idea of recovery. If the spilled crude oil product can be recovered quickly - before the volatiles evaporate - the quality of the recovered product could be high enough to be used as refinery-grade input. This is in marked contrast to conventional industry practice, in the best case scenario for an oil-spill event at sea, no significant pick-up capability is put on-scene for at least 72 hours.

Full responsibility for oil-spill prevention or stopping a spill must remain with the operator. However, as operators and carriers have generally abdicated or contracted out oil-spill response and ignored remediation - especially when the impact moves beyond their property - we feel the call to improve the practice related to oil-spill response, recovery and remediation.

Large oil spill events require a ‘fire-department’ response mentality, while small spills may be addressed with a 'fire-extingusher' mind-set. Existing first-responders - frequently volunteer fire-fighters - need training, support, and appropriate equipment and materials from the moment the alarm sounds. Locals will respond first, simply due to geography and transit time - and because of anchored vested interest - this is where they live. An effective response plan has to take local response into account. The second-level responders need to show up with appropriate equipment within a very short period (hours at most) for oil recovery and spill containment so that the incident zone does not continue to expand exponentially. Once the immediate recovery and clean-up has been completed, incident management should move to remediation within days to reduce the impact on local organisms.

Conventional containment booms are not effective in icy water, or where there is any significant degree of wave action. Booms are a finger in the dike, not a response solution.

Current conventional oil skimmers are not effective at sea, where off-shore oil rigs are located and many ship-related spills occur. Recovery rates are typically in the order of 3-5% in warm, calm waters. Test results higher than this are typically based on thick layers of oil in a test tank, unlike real-world conditions where oil has spread to form a thin film on the effectively infinite ocean.

Chemical dispersants like Corexit (used at Macondo), designed to remove oil from the water surface, constitute chemical warfare. They cause collateral damage by decimating any living organisms which encounter the oil-dispersant mix, which is at least 50 times more toxic (neurotoxin) than the oil alone. The science on this, based on results, still coming in from the unauthorized Macondo Corexit experiment, is sufficiently alarming that a number of countries have banned Corexit (e.g., UK, Denmark, Sweden) and ordered existing stockpiles destroyed.

Heavy oils (e.g., bitumen after the diluents have evaporated) probably won’t reach shore. Instead, in open water, after a day or two, they become denser than water as the lighter volatiles dissipate and wave action exposes the tarry surfaces to sediments. Canadian federal government and other testing has consistently demonstrated this behaviour for dilbit (bitumen mixed with diluents required for it to flow in pipelines or be put into tankers) spilled in water. So waiting for the heavy oil to reach shore is a futile approach; bereft of the lighter volatile components, the oil-tar will be deposited on the floor of the water body, potentially creating the equivalent of an asphalt roof on it and whatever was living on it. Think of it as paving the seafloor.

In situ burning consists of pouring accelerants (something like gasoline or barbecue starter fluid) onto a spill, and then setting the lot on fire. This is something akin to dealing with the autumn’s fallen leaves in the woods by setting the forest on fire. The result is black smoke thrown into the atmosphere, accompanied by a massive emission of carbon dioxide and a whole lot of heat. In a world where we need to reduce emission of greenhouse gases, waste heat and darkening of the planet surface from soot, this approach is 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Turning water pollution into greenhouse gases, air pollution and soil contamination is not a solution, just a transformation to a bigger set of problems.

In short, when it comes to oil-spill response today, conventional practice is largely wrong in terms of response approach, techniques and equipment used, and an inflexible oil industry.

Amphibious capability is a must-have for effective spill response. Spills on land, if left to the whims of gravity and of sufficient volume, will run to lower ground; most often, water or wetlands. Oil spilled on water will drift until it reaches shore (or sinks to the river bottom or seabed). Current oil spill response equipment does not embrace amphibious technology.

RESTCo has an approach, and has developed a suite of techniques, tools, technologies, and network of affiliated organizations, which can do better.

The following are some of RESTCo's accomplishments related to oil spill technology, mitigation and response.

National Energy Board submission / intervention

The Ottawa Forum Presentations

The Ottawa Forum Synopsis

RESTCo's submission to the UK House of Lords Select Committee

RESTCo's invited submission to the U.S. National Research Council

The U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) invited RESTCo to submit a proposal for an oil spill response solution in 2014. Unfortunately, the funding set by BSEE for the proposal was not sufficient to cover the cost of developing a vessel on the scale they required. In early 2015, a similar call for proposals was issued by BSEE, and RESTCo submitted a white paper in response. Following that, BSEE requested a full technical and pricing proposal from RESTCo related to recovering oil from the water surface where ice is present. After spending months evaluating our proposal, BSEE determined it had merit, but due to budget constraints, did not award a contract to pursue the work (December 2015).

RESTCo completed the construction of its own mobile oil spill response test tank and monitoring facility during the first half of 2015.

For more information on RESTCo's approach to real oil-spill recovery and remediation, please contact us.

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