[PAST EVENT] Biology Seminar: Roger Green

November 7, 2011

I will review and compare major oil spills, including the recent (April 2010) Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon blowout and spill (BP and associated companies). I will compare three spills, the previous two being the August 2009 Montara Wellhead blowout in the Timor Sea (north of the west coast of Australia) and the March 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Some earlier spills may be mentioned briefly for context.

The common factor in major oil spills is of course a large amount of spilled oil. However, each spill is unique in several regards, for example the type of oil, climate and weather conditions, temperature and salinity of the sea water, the habitats at risk, the type of shoreline (of geological origin or biogenic?), the amount of oil spilled, the rate of release into the environment and the geography (open sea or a confined area such as a bay). Then add to these "given" factors the human response to the spill: attempts at mechanical collection of the oil and/or booming off sensitive areas e.g. hatcheries, attempts to burn the oil, dispersants used and if so then which dispersant and how applied, and finally how long after the spill each of these is attempted (determines how "weathered" the oil is).

Also, in a general sense what was the state of preparedness of the country/region/government for a major oil spill? How ready were they to respond effectively? Then in the end these factors will determine the impact of the spill: the nature and extent of damage caused, prospects for and time-line of recovery, economic and social as well as biological/ecological impacts. Proper assessment of the spill requires a major commitment of funding and manpower to a properly designed and executed impact study with expert analysis and interpretation of the resulting data, followed by independent external review and evaluation.

These three major spills differ in some obvious ways (climate, water temperature, shoreline type, habitats) and in some ways that are less obvious. The more recent ones are of more current interest but the earlier ones provide better assessment of long-term damages and costs, and of "lessons learned" in general. Unfortunately humans are not very good at learning lessons from disasters and incorporating them into improved future responses to new ones.

I have had extensive involvement with all three of these oil spills. From 1989 to 1993 I chaired the Design & Statistics Working Group of the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council on damage assessment and restoration studies related to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, co-published papers on the study designs and statistical treatment of EV impact studies and have been a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council since 2003.

PWSRCAC follows other oil spills carefully and has interacted extensively with Gulf of Mexico people regarding the recent spill there. Similarly we were in communication with Australian scientists regarding the Timor Sea spill. I am now working with a consortium of the law firms suing BP and associated companies for damages regarding the Gulf of Mexico spill in U.S. Federal Court.