Black Leads to Grey – the Influence of Oil Pollution Information in the Grey Literature

The impact of oil pollution of the marine environment by petroleum oil and its refined products has been recognized for many decades. Hence, oil is an internationally regulated pollutant under the MARPOL 73/76 Convention and the London Convention and Protocol (Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972), as well as in national legislation in various countries, e.g., Canada’s Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the USA’s Oil Pollution Act.

Of note in this regard is a recent article penned by Peter Wells of the EIUI research team (Wells, 2017). The article marks the 50th anniversary of the SS Torrey Canyon supertanker accident and spill in the English Channel in 1967. This event and other large spills shortly afterwards led to major research programmes on the impacts (fate and effects) of oil spills in coastal environments. Much of this research was conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, with another focussed research effort in the 1990s after the famed Exxon Valdez accident in Alaskan waters.

Two points in the article are of direct relevance to the primary research topics probed by EIUI:  the on-going use and impact of information in grey literature, and the role of marine environmental information in policy and decision making for the oceans.

The first point is “the importance of today’s pollution investigators having a comprehensive knowledge of prior research published in the relevant ‘older’ scientific literature, especially grey literature, and not repeating experiments and field work of the past without reason” (Wells, 2017, p. 2). As well as thousands of papers published in the primary literature, there is a very extensive grey literature in the oil pollution research field. Examples include the annual Proceedings of the Arctic and Marine Oilspill Program (AMOP), available at, since 1978; the Proceedings of the Biennial API International Oil Spill Conference, available at; numerous reports published by government agencies such as the US-EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) in the United Kingdom, and Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans in Canada; and the numerous environmental impact assessment reports produced by the private sector in association with new oil developments and pipelines on land and sea. The data and information in this grey literature is often of great value still today – witness the extensive grey literature on the marine toxicity of oil spill dispersing agents (dispersants), alone and with oil, and its contribution as background knowledge to new research being planned and conducted on the Deep Water Horizon blowout and spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the world’s largest inshore spill to date and one where extensive use of dispersants took place. The message is that new investigators, attracted by the available funding and new research possibilities, should be aware of and be using this enormous and valuable information base, and not, as is often the case, just be relying on and citing previous studies published in the most recent primary literature. Despite the rapid advancement in research methods, the older studies (primary and grey) merit attention and greater use.

The second major point is that the Marine Pollution Bulletin started as a mimeographed newsletter with limited distribution (true grey literature!) around the same time as the Torrey Canyon spill and has now produced nearly 50 years of papers in this field. Hence, “we might reflect on how scientific information in the Marine Pollution Bulletin (and related ones) has contributed over many years to evidence-based/informed policies and legislation in national and international arenas” (Wells, 2017, p. 2.). The journal has become a “one stop shop” for many significant scientific findings, reviews, and commentaries in the field world-wide, not only for interested marine environmental scientists but also, in its own words, “for marine engineers, administrators, politicians and lawyers” (the byline of the journal). Many oil pollution articles have appeared over the years in its pages.

Hence, another interesting project beckons for the EIUI team. Questions include: How influential has this journal been in this specialized field of marine pollution? How broad is its readership? (At GESAMP (Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection) meetings, I recall seeing UN technical secretaries carrying copies with them, perhaps as lunch-time reading!). Is it possible to comprehensively and accurately measure such influence? Is doing so important or should one simply assume influence, that the accumulated information has been used by each reader, when and where appropriate? What methods would provide the “best” measure of such influence? Are newer methods, not yet envisaged, needed? Can one put a monetary value on such information influence?

Pollution science progresses very rapidly, producing much new information daily. Both forms of literature, grey and primary, disseminate information about marine oil pollution. The challenge for the researcher is to use all available sources of information as the background to new research. Given the various stresses facing the oceans, including oil pollution, there is considerable urgency to consider these questions and strengthen the role of science in the relevant policy and decision-making processes essential for protecting the sea and its living resources.


Author: Peter G. Wells



Wells, P.G. (2017). The iconic Torrey Canyon oil spill of 1967 – marking its legacy. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 115(1-2),1-2.


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