The Oil Pollution Act of 19901 (OPA 90) was enacted after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989—at that time, the largest oil spill to have occurred in U.S. waters. The spill resulted in oiling of more than 1,000 miles of coastline in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and brought worldwide attention to the effects of oil pollution with powerful imagery of oiled sea life, oily shorelines, and hundreds of response workers covered in oil. OPA 90 amended the Clean Water Act to specifically address prevention, response, liability, compensation, and federal oversight of oil pollution in U.S. waters. Title VII of OPA 90 established the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research (ICCOPR) to coordinate research for preventing, planning for, responding to, and mitigating the effects of oil pollution on the environment. In direct response to ICCOPR’s charge, an oil pollution research and technology plan was first published in 1992 and then updated in 1997, 2015, and 2022.
In addition to mandating an oil pollution research and technology plan, OPA 90 directs the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to review the plan, specifically to provide advice and guidance on the preparation and development of the plan, to assess the adequacy of the plan, and to provide organizational guidance regarding implementation of the plan. The request for the current review was included in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021 and provides the basis for establishing the National Academies’ Committee to Review ICCOPR’s 2022-2027 Research and Technology Plan’s (hereinafter referred to as “the committee”) Statement of Task (see Box S.1).
Over 30 years after the passage of OPA 90, the need to continue to advance oil pollution research and technology remains. Despite ongoing advances in technologies, safety protocols, and enforcement of more stringent regulations, oil spills continue to occur as the result of human error, mechanical failures, natural events, and accidents. Looking forward, it will take decades for the United States to transition away from fossil fuel energy sources and other petroleum products. Oil pollution and its effects on the environment will remain a national and global concern for the foreseeable future.
1 OPA 90 (Oil Pollution Act of 1990). 1990. 33 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq.
THE COMMITTEE’S ASSESSMENT
The 2022-2027 Oil Pollution Research and Technology Plan (R&T Plan) covers an enormous amount of information that was collated and synthesized in a relatively short time period. The R&T Plan could serve as an authoritative document for U.S. federal agencies and for the much larger oil pollution research community—forging opportunities to leverage historically limited resources for oil pollution research within the United States and internationally. As currently written, many aspects of the report are sufficient; however, the report falls short of meeting several congressional requirements and lacks specificity in areas important for communicating significance and value.
Based on its examination of the 2022 R&T Plan development process, structure, and content, the committee offers several overarching conclusions and recommendations for consideration by ICCOPR. These conclusions and recommendations are aimed at streamlining the R&T Plan development process, expanding its reach, and measuring and promoting its success. Implementation of the committee’s recommendations, paired with additional resources in terms of time, funding, and staff, could lead to a more comprehensive and visible plan.
Guidance on Future R&T Plan Development
OPA 90 mandates that the ICCOPR R&T Plan be updated every 10 years; however, ICCOPR deemed it important and necessary to update the plan more frequently and has developed a 6-year cycle that provides 2 years to develop the R&T Plan, 2 years to plan research, and 2 years to conduct the research. The length of the current cycle is insufficient given the amount of effort involved in plan development (e.g., data collection, evaluation of resolved Research Needs, evaluation, and prioritization). Development of future plans would greatly benefit from a process that allows for continuous identification of Research Needs and documentation of research progress, rather than restricting such efforts to a 2-year planning window.
Recommendation 1: The ICCOPR R&T Plan development process should be improved and streamlined. A more continuous process for identification of Research Needs and documentation of research progress would result in a more complete, transparent, and community-driven research agenda. In addition:
- Expertise of individuals participating in the information-gathering process should be expanded to include Indigenous and other underrepresented communities that could be affected by oil pollution, as well as a wide range of practitioners (i.e., operational spill responders; professionals with expertise in restoration, human health, and socioeconomics; policy makers).
- The R&T Plan Workgroup should ensure that all Research Needs identified during the information-gathering process are considered in the prioritization process.
- The R&T Plan Workgroup, or any group prioritizing the Research Needs, should include social scientists and public health experts to ensure that economic-, social-, and health-related research gaps are sufficiently covered in future R&T plans.
- A more transparent process for prioritization of Research Needs should be developed. Prioritization would benefit from a risk-based approach that weights end-user potential and likelihood to incorporate research findings into practice, therefore improving oil spill prevention, preparedness, response, and injury assessment and restoration.
Adequacy of Content
The committee concluded that five of the eight requirements for the 2022-2027 R&T Plan listed in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) were addressed. The three requirements that were not adequately addressed are as follows:
- “assesses the research on the applicability and effectiveness of the prevention, response, and mitigation technologies to each class of oil”
The R&T Plan does not provide an assessment on the applicability and effectiveness of each technology to the oil classes.
- “estimates the resources needed to conduct the oil pollution research and development program, and timetables for completing research tasks”
The R&T Plan identifies priority Research Needs. However, in most cases, it does not specify whether the goals and objectives of the prioritized projects would be completed within the proposed 2022-2027 timeframe. In addition, it does not provide estimates of the resources needed to conduct the prioritized projects.
- “summarizes research on response equipment in varying environmental conditions, such as in currents, ice cover, and ice floes”
The R&T Plan only briefly discusses the influence of environmental conditions on the effectiveness of various types of response measures and equipment.
Incorporating the committee’s guidance on future plan development, particularly the guidance to streamline and expand the information-gathering process, would strengthen compliance with all 2021 NDAA requirements.
In terms of adequacy of Research Needs identified, the committee raised several concerns about the clarity, completeness, and defensibility of the final list of research priorities listed in Chapter 9 of the R&T Plan. Descriptions of the Standing Research Areas and specific Research Needs are unbalanced and, in many cases, lack sufficient detail to clarify the intent. In addition, the R&T Plan does not meaningfully cover economic, social, and health sectors (and risk commu-
nication), although they are identified as important Research Needs, particularly in Chapter 7 on Noteworthy Oil Spills. Inclusion of social scientists and public health experts on ICCOPR would help to fill this gap.
Ultimately, the adequacy of the R&T Plan content is largely a reflection of the development process and will be enhanced as that process is improved.
Recommendation 2: Future revisions of the R&T Plan should provide sufficient and appropriate descriptions for each priority Research Need, including the general research that should be addressed, followed by the goals and objectives of the research. Recommended metrics, desired outcomes, and timelines for completing the research agenda should also be included.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SUCCESS
The committee identified several fundamental obstacles that hinder both the development and the success of the plan.
First, little funding is directed toward ICCOPR activities and research. Without dedicated funding or an implementation strategy, the R&T Plan is simply a list of Research Needs, rather than a plan, as intended. ICCOPR needs dedicated funding to fully address the congressionally mandated requirements of the R&T Plan and to ensure a robust development process and successful implementation.
Conclusion: ICCOPR requires dedicated funding to enable a more robust and continuous R&T Plan development and evaluation process and, at a minimum, address the most critical Research Needs. In the meantime, ICCOPR will likely benefit from continued efforts to leverage related research and development activities, in part through engagement with industry and other organizations, to effectively address and ensure advancement of priority Research Needs.
Second, the time allotted for information gathering and priority setting is insufficient for such a large body of research. The information-gathering process could be streamlined, and outreach efforts could be expanded to create a more robust and transparent R&T Plan, as well as to facilitate collaboration and coordination of research efforts among federal agencies and the wider oil spill response community. Such a coordinated effort would also help to address the other factors important to the success of the R&T Plan: continuity of research, attraction of new researchers, and public acceptance of response actions.
Recommendation 3: ICCOPR should lead an effort to develop and maintain an oil pollution research dashboard. The dashboard would support an ongoing process to streamline and improve data gathering, research prioritization, and evaluation of the R&T Plan. It would also facilitate communication of the R&T Plan—in terms of both research priorities and access to federally funded research results—and implementation through coordination and collaboration with the larger oil pollution research community.
As highlighted in past R&T Plans and in numerous studies, field testing continues to hinder progress in oil pollution research toward the deployment-ready stage. The committee concluded that agencies’ reluctance to tackle this difficult but not insurmountable obstacle influenced the prioritization process.
Recommendation 4: ICCOPR should initiate development of a regulatory process to enable the conduct of experimental open-water field trials. In conjunction, ICCOPR agencies should pursue opportunities for open-water field trials through national and international collaborations (with countries such as Canada and Norway, which have established a formal authorization process for such tests). Continuous releases associated with offshore seeps (i.e., Santa Barbara, Gulf of Mexico) and well-designed “spill of opportunity” research projects could present opportunities for conducting some field tests.
Lastly, it is difficult to declare success without a defined metric for its quantification. The ability to measure and communicate outputs, outcomes, and impacts of the R&T Plan is an important (and missing) tool for effective implementation.
Recommendation 5: The R&T Plan descriptions of Classes, Standing Research Areas, and Research Needs should include metrics to measure outputs, outcomes, and impacts. Such metrics should, at a minimum, enable a performance evaluation against NDAA requirements and should tie directly to biennial reports to Congress.
Coordinated research efforts to advance knowledge and capacity related to oil spill prevention, preparedness, response, mitigation, and restoration and recovery are necessary for protection of the environment and the people and communities who rely on the environment and its resources. Acknowledgment of important gaps in oil pollution research and technology, and provision of research funding to fill those gaps, will lead to improved knowledge, capacity, and regulations to safeguard the environment and protect life.