Despite ongoing efforts to decarbonize global energy systems, oil remains an important source of energy, and therefore oil pollution, and its effects on the environment will remain a national and global concern. Advances in technologies, safety protocols, and enforcement of more stringent regulations have led to a decrease in the number of spills occurring in North American waters over the past decade (NASEM, 2022b); however, oil spills will continue to occur as a result of human error, mechanical failures, natural events, and accidents. Chronic sources of oil, such as land-based runoff, are also major contributors to oil pollution (NASEM, 2022b). Releases of oil to the environment can occur at any location where it is extracted, refined, transported, or used (DOT, 2018).
Recent national attention has been paid to spills of petroleum hydrocarbons on U.S. lands and waters, including a chronic release (starting in 2004, with containment of the oil starting in 2019) in the Gulf of Mexico caused by hurricane-induced structural damage to an offshore production facility; a pipeline spill into nearshore waters at Refugio Beach, California, in 2015; the release of condensate from the oil tanker Sanchi following a collision in 2018; the Colonial Pipeline spill of gasoline in North Carolina in 2020; the Tru Oil Pipeline crude oil spill into a creek in North Dakota in 2020; and the Huntington Beach crude oil spill in 2021 attributed to a damaged subsea pipeline. The illegal release of oil into the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel in 2021, the Mauritius spill of low-sulfur fuel oil from the grounding of a bulk carrier in 2021, the spill of crude oil on the coast of Peru in 2022, and the 2022 leakage of gas from Russia’s Nord pipeline into the Baltic Sea also highlight the fact that oil spills are a global issue. Although media attention is focused on large releases of petroleum fluids, thousands of small incidents occur each year. Depending on the situation, impacts of an oil spill can be seen over a range of time scales, from days to decades. Advancement of research and technologies to reduce the number and impacts of oil spills is essential for the protection of our environment and the sustainability of its living resources, as well as our quality of life.
The 1967 Torrey Canyon oil spill off the coast of England raised public awareness about the level of ecological and environmental damage that could occur from accidental oil spills. As a result, the U.S. government created the multi-agency National Oil and Hazardous Materials Contingency Plan (commonly referred to as the National Contingency Plan) to enhance the coordination of
response and management of oil spills and oil pollution research. The first Federal Water Pollution Control Act was enacted in 1948 and then rewritten in 1972 in the Clean Water Act and amended in response to the Clean Water Act of 1977 and the Water Quality Act of 1987. Following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, which revealed the need for federal agencies to further enhance the coordination of their research, the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research (ICCOPR) was established per Title VII of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90).
INTERAGENCY COORDINATION COMMITTEE ON OIL POLLUTION RESEARCH
ICCOPR was established by Title VII of OPA 90 to
coordinate a comprehensive program of oil pollution research, technology development, and demonstration among the federal agencies, in cooperation and coordination with industry, universities, research institutions, state governments, and other nations, as appropriate, and shall foster cost-effective research mechanisms, including the joint funding of the research. (OPA 90, Section 7001)
ICCOPR includes membership from 16 federal agencies and departments responsible for oil spill prevention and response:
- United States Coast Guard
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
- Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
- U.S. Navy
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- U.S. Department of Energy
- U.S. Fire Administration
- Maritime Administration
- National Institute of Standards and Technology
- Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
- U.S. Arctic Research Commission
- U.S. Geological Survey
ICCOPR is administered through the United States Coast Guard Headquarters (Washington, DC) with a modest budget to carry out the duties outlined in Title VI of OPA 90, which include holding quarterly meetings of the ICCOPR membership, reporting its progress to Congress every 2 years, developing an oil pollution research and technology plan (at least every 10 years), and coordinating activities. ICCOPR does not receive dedicated funding to support implementation of the research and technology plan.
OIL POLLUTION RISKS
Assessment of future environmental impacts from oil pollution and improvement in oil pollution prevention, response, and mitigation strategies and technologies require consideration of changes in the way oil is produced, processed, and delivered. Thus, to plan for future research activities, ICCOPR has adopted a “systems approach” that begins with drilling for oil and ends with delivery of the product to the consumer.
Exploration and Production
Drilling environments are likely to become more challenging for exploration and production operations in the coming years (NASEM, 2022b). Advances in drilling technologies are enabling industry to drill at greater depths. However, as illustrated by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, increases in hazards and risks associated with deep-water oil exploration and production warrant the development of improved spill response strategies. With a longer open-water season in the Arctic due to the warming climate, oil exploration and maritime shipping are anticipated to increase within this region. In addition, in April 2022, the federal government announced that drilling on federal land has partially opened,1 but how this activity may impact global oil supplies and transport within the United States remains unclear. Because of continued exploration and production activities, the risk of oil spills will persist and will change with changing conditions.
Refining and Transportation
Refining crude oil into petroleum products includes storage and off-loading and loading of petroleum hydrocarbons on tank vessels (i.e., ships and barges), tank railcars, tanker trucks, and pipelines. Refining also encompasses the production and handling of nonconventional petroleum products (e.g., diluted bitumen, low-sulfur fuel oils), biofuels and vegetable oils, plastics, and other petrochemical products that may challenge existing oil spill response strategies. In recent years, hurricanes have caused extensive damage to refineries and storage facilities along the Gulf of Mexico. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused a spillage of more than 22,000 barrels of oil, fuel, and other petrochemicals from coastal facilities.
Oil in the United States is transported from wells to refineries and as refined products to consumers by ships and barges, offshore and onshore pipelines, tanker railcars, and tanker trucks, each posing risk for a spill. In terms of marine transport by ships and barges, the incidence of operational and accidental oil spills has decreased because of improved safety measures and international regulations (e.g., transition to double hulls) despite an increase in volumes shipped (ITOPF, 2021; NASEM, 2022b). The risk of spills from barges exists with the transport of shale oil from the Bakken Play to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast by river from the Midwest. Concerns about the integrity of pipelines and their susceptibility to natural disasters are high because of aging infrastructure (NASEM, 2022b). For example, concern exists about the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline, which crosses under the Straits of Mackinac and more than 400 rivers, streams, and wetlands within the Great Lakes region. Furthermore, oil transportation and storage facilities are at risk of eco-terrorism (e.g., sabotage of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System or the 2022 explosion of Russian natural gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea).
Annual oil production in the United States has increased since 2008 (EIA, 2021). After the Energy Policy and Conservation Act was repealed in 2015, global export of U.S. crude was allowed, further increasing production as the United States transitioned from being a net importer to a net exporter of crude oil. Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies have enabled domestic production of oil from shale plays, contributing to oil production in the United States. Because of recent political events (March 2022) that led to the ban on the import of oil from Russia, U.S. oil production is anticipated to further increase.
As the energy industry transitions from fossil fuels to alternative sources, the use of OPA 90− regulated products (such as lubricating fluids) by the renewable energy sector is increasing, and these products may behave differently than traditional crudes when released into the environment.
1 See https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/interior-department-announces-significantly-reformed-onshore-oil-and-gas-lease-sales.
Another example of leakage in renewable energy is hydrogen. The use of new fuel types, such as very-low and ultra-low sulfur fuel oils in marine shipping and biofuels, is also on the rise. Research is needed to better understand the fate and behavior of these products in the environment and to develop appropriate spill countermeasures.
Looking forward, new potential sources for oil pollution require consideration across the system, such as aging oil and gas infrastructure, increased frequency and intensity of severe weather, sea-level rise, and eco-terrorism (NASEM, 2022b). In addition, there are new response challenges to consider, such as the release of oiled debris from cargo ship accidents as seen when the M/V X-Press Pearl cargo grounded off the west coast of Sri Lanka and spilled ~1,680 tons of spherical pieces of plastic or “nurdles” in addition to fuel (de Vos et al., 2022).
Thus, with spills still occurring, new spill scenarios emerging, and concerns about the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of oil pollution ongoing, a coordinated research strategy for oil spill prevention, preparedness, response, mitigation, and restoration and recovery is needed for protection of the environment and the people who rely on the environment and its resources. The acknowledgment of important gaps in oil pollution research and technology, and funding of research to fill those gaps, should lead to improved knowledge, capacity, and regulations to protect both the planet and those who live here.
ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION OF THE OIL POLLUTION RESEARCH AND TECHNOLOGY PLAN AND REVIEW
Following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Title VII of OPA 90 established ICCOPR to coordinate research for preventing, planning for, responding to, and mitigating the effects of oil pollution on the environment. A key responsibility includes fostering cost-effective research mechanisms to encompass joint funding of research and the development of public–private research partnerships. As part of this law, the first version of the Oil Pollution Research and Technology Plan (R&T Plan) was published in 1992.
The 1992 R&T Plan was an ambitious document with more than 260 pages addressing most of the requirements of OPA 90. The R&T Plan also described oil pollution events before 1990 and the roles and responsibilities of the multiple agencies as dictated by multiple laws (e.g., Clean Water Act), and the 1992 R&T Plan initiated Regional Response Teams throughout the country to address regional concerns. ICCOPR established subcommittees that identified four areas of research and technology needs: spill prevention; spill response planning and management; spill response, fate, transport, and effects of oil; and restoration and rehabilitation. ICCOPR subcommittees identified priority areas and specific projects that could be executed. The 1992 R&T Plan identified three categories for potential research: (1) activities that could be performed immediately within the agencies, (2) research to be carried out using the initial OPA 90 funding, and (3) projects that could be executed if additional funds were provided. It also described a grant program that was authorized and funded for the first couple of years. The general timeline of legislation and development of R&T Plans is shown in Figure 1.1.
As required by OPA 90, ICCOPR engaged the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)2 to convene a committee to review the 1992 R&T Plan and provide recommendations on improvement (recommendations are presented in Box 1.1).
In 1997, ICCOPR published an update of the plan. This update was 83 pages and addressed the NAS committee recommendations listed in Box 1.1, as much as practical under the auspices of ICCOPR. For example, although again identified as important, legal hurdles to field testing
2 In the 1990s, the National Research Council (NRC) was the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS); the United States Coast Guard sponsored the NAS to conduct the review; however, the NRC is the publisher.
remained (and continue to remain). Similarly, despite the recommendation to allocate adequate resources to implement the 1992 R&T Plan, such resources have never been invested in the history of ICCOPR. In addition to responding to the NAS review, the 1997 R&T Plan included some qualitative assessment of oil spill risks and identified areas of research focus for each of the ICCOPR member agencies. For more than a decade, although agencies, industry, and academia engaged in some oil spill research and development, the plan was not revised.
Following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, ICCOPR member agencies recognized the need to update the 1997 R&T Plan and for the agencies to commit to regular updates (every 6 years). With the assistance of the University of New Hampshire Coastal Response and Research Center (CRRC), the 2015-2021 R&T Plan was published (ICCOPR, 2015). The stated principal objectives of this plan were as follows:
- define common research themes related to oil pollution research;
- identify on a regular basis the knowledge gaps associated with common research themes and recommend what gaps should be considered as high research priorities within them;
- act as an umbrella or connecting document with other strategic federal research plans (or accomplishment reports) that also address research support for oil pollution topics;
- document the interagency research coordination process, as well as the feedback processes developed by federal research, management, and regulatory agencies;
- promote research information transfer between the government, the public, and other stakeholders; and
- encourage and track efforts to implement improvements and technological change within agency roles and responsibilities via updates in the biennial reports to Congress.
ICCOPR developed a new framework for the 2015-2021 R&T Plan. The CRRC was contracted to review published data (papers and conferences), new regulations, and new or expected policy and technology changes to gather a list of potential Research Needs and classify them under the Standing Research Area (SRA) framework. Three public listening sessions were held. A group of identified subject-matter experts was then surveyed to review and prioritize the proposed research topics.
The 2015-2021 R&T Plan identified non-federal groups within and outside the United States that were engaged in relevant research and development, regular conferences, committees that engage in the subject area, and data from case studies of spills, including natural resource damage assessments. The research Classes were reduced to four: prevention, preparedness, response, and injury assessment and restoration, with SRAs within each Class. In the final report, the top three Research Needs for each SRA were listed, while all identified research projects were documented in an appendix for future use.
Through the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2021, ICCOPR was again directed to develop a new R&T Plan. The 2021 NDAA also directed ICCOPR to contract with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to provide advice and guidance on the development, content, and implementation of the R&T Plan (see Box 1.2).
In January 2022, the 2022-2027 R&T Plan (ICCOPR, 2022) was publicly released. At the same time, the National Academies appointed the Committee to Review the ICCOPR 2022-2027 Research and Technology Plan (referred to hereinafter as “the committee”), to again, review the R&T Plan.
The committee’s task, adapted from 2021 NDAA language, is presented in Box 1.3. The committee’s deliberations and report writing were informed by review of current and past ICCOPR
R&T Plans, by scientific literature, and by a series of public meetings and presentations, drawing on expertise from academic, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations. The information gathering helped the committee to better understand how the 2022-2027 R&T Plan was developed, how it is used, and how it could be used and improved upon in the future.
The committee responded to the Statement of Task in three main parts. First, the committee focused on understanding the development process resulting in the 2022-2027 R&T Plan, as described in Chapter 2. The chapter examines the structure and organization of the plan and the plan’s research classification system, priority setting, and development cycle. Next, as described in Chapter 3, the committee delved into the details of the plan’s content, assessing adherence to congressional requirements and the robustness of research gaps identified. Lastly, as described in Chapter 4, the committee considered implementation of the plan, including ways to encourage cooperation, coordination, and collaboration to advance oil pollution research across public and private sectors, both domestically and internationally. Chapter 4 also discusses the barriers to implementation.
Major findings are shown in italic throughout the report that support the conclusions and recommendations included at the end of each chapter.