Ian Stewart presents paper on a social science perspective on oil spill response and social licence

A very important and topical area of scientific and technical research ongoing in Canada and around the world concerns the fate and effects of hydrocarbons when released into marine, freshwater, and land-based ecosystems. In the Canadian context, a recent massive study carried out under the direction of the Royal Society of Canada required 461 pages just to outline the basics of the scientific knowledge on the topic, and to canvas the surprisingly many outstanding areas of research still facing the scientific community. With the importance of oil and gas development and transport to Canadian national and regional economies, robust research on the potential negative impacts on environments and communities of this complex industry is understandably a high priority for government, industry, academia and NGOs, and the broader public.

On 7-9 June 2016, Halifax was host to the 39th annual “AMOP” conference: the Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) Technical Seminar on Environmental Contamination and Response. AMOP (Arctic and Marine Oilspill Programme) was the original title of the technical seminar on this topic first convened by ECCC in 1978, which over the years broadened its mandate to include biotechnologies and bioremediation fields. But in 2016, oil spills were very much still the dominant topic of discussion, reflecting also the particular expertise of the lead organizers, the Emergencies Science and Technology Section (ESTS) of ECCC, based in Ottawa. Delegates representing scientists and policy experts within government, industry, and academia from around the world offered over 100 papers and over 20 poster sessions throughout parallel sessions spanning all three days.

The topics covered were, as the title suggests, highly technical. One major area concerns the topic of modelling: because of the relatively (and thankfully) rare incidence of oil spills in the field, the science and technology of understanding oil spills in natural environments relies heavily on laboratory and meso-scale experiments; translating science from such contexts into field-relevant scientific and operational knowledge depends heavily on modelling. A major topic to which both experimental and modelling approaches are applied concerns some still basic questions concerning what happens to oil in different ecosystems: where does it go, how fast, and with what consequences, especially toxicological ones, to receiving environments? The effects on wildlife was a topic of one dedicated panel, as our knowledge of the sensitivity to both short-term and long-term cumulative effects of hydrocarbon releases into ecosystems has increased as monitoring protocols and techniques improve in sophistication. The field of effects modelling and risk prediction is a highly sophisticated aspect of environmental assessments, central to review processes, for example, being carried out by the National Energy Board for the major pipeline projects from the Alberta oilsands towards both Canada’s east and west coasts. Accordingly, what those pipelines (as well as railcars) would carry, namely blended crude oils (such as diluted bitumen) in particular featured in many of these sessions because of the distinctive properties of such blends compared to “conventional” crude oils. Other papers reflected the fact that potential expansion of oil and gas development in and transportation through the Arctic poses distinctive research questions covering all of these topics. And advances and ongoing challenges facing the various response methodologies to oilspills in old and new contexts (such as the iced waters of the Arctic) were also of particular interest, including in-situ burning, chemical dispersants, mechanical recovery and natural biodegradation.

A number of papers were given reflecting more an operations focus, for example, the experience of responders (City of Vancouver, Coast Guard) to the recent spill in English Bay, BC., in April of this year. One particularly illuminating paper outlined the contributions of the environmental wisdom of Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Burrard Inlet) to spill response planning with respect to the Kinder Morgan pipeline project. Beyond this, there was no explicit treatment of topics central to EIUI’s work on science policy, although many of the papers delivered could be classed as contributions to “grey literature.”

However, all of these papers belong effectively to the field of applied environmental science: the complex pathways that information takes as it moves from lab bench to real uses and influences in the context of hydrocarbon spills. As such it is an area that EIUI is rightly interested in. I was grateful, amongst overwhelmingly scientific contributors, to be able to offer a different kind of paper: “Oil spill response and social licence: a perspective from the social sciences,” which addressed the challenges that such complex pathways of knowledge mobilization pose for the challenge of “social licence.” My argument was a simple but perhaps unnerving one: social licence will increasingly require full disclosure of the actual state (including areas of uncertainty) of scientific and technological capacity to predict and mitigate oil spills on land and in coastal/ocean contexts.

My paper was well received, and the topic itself generated a lot of conversation amongst delegates, I’m told; an executive of Kinder Morgen even wanted a copy! The use and influence of scientific research on the fate and effects of hydrocarbons released into environments continues to pose some rather difficult research questions and challenges. EIUI’s distinctive approaches to analysing scientific knowledge mobilization beyond the confines of specialist circles will have much to contribute, going forward, to the broader challenge of helping define and encourage the role of science in public discourse concerning whether and how to continue to rely on hydrocarbon extraction projects to meet Canada’s energy needs.


Author: Ian Stewart

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