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Is oil spill risk controllable?

One expert group taking on the challenge of estimating in advance how much ecological damage different sized oil spills could cause.
Published: 13 December 2016

Written in collaboration with Sakari Kuikka, University of Helsinki, and Robert Aps, University of Tartu​.​​​​

ICES Working Group on Risks of Maritime Activities in the Baltic Sea (WGMABS), chaired by Sakari Kuikka and Robert Aps, held its second meeting in Copenhagen in November. Consisting of scientists from several countries that border the Baltic Sea, the group is responsible for conducting oil spill risk analyses in the unique body of brackish water. This is a task that involves looking at potential biological consequences, the financial dimension, and the role played by scientific knowledge.

Varying impacts

In the Baltic, highly variable environmental traits such as wind strength and direction and ice conditions have an important effect on the impacts of oil accidents. Sometimes, however, the effects can be highly unpredictable and disproportionate, as is the case with seabirds.

One example is the oil spill from the Amoco Cadiz tanker, which ran aground off the coast of Brittany in France in 1978. The oil leakage from the accident totaled 230 000 tonnes, but the total number of dead birds was 'only' 20 000. On the other hand, a relatively small oil leakage of ten tonnes from a small vessel close to Gotland waters in the Baltic Sea killed 60 000 birds. In risk estimation, such high randomness increases the probabilities of extreme impacts, so-called 'tail probabilities'.

Counting the cost

The commercial value of fish species in Gulf of Finland, the Baltic's eastern arm, is low compared to that of oil. The load of one tanker can easily be worth tens of millions of euros, far more than yearly herring catches in the Gulf. Added to this though, are the potential costs of cleaning up an oil spill, which can amount to a billion dollars, as was the case with the Prestige spill in 2002.

Oil risk is not easy to control through international or national policy tools. Risk analyses must consider the real interests of stakeholders to make estimates relevant. For companies these interests may be monetary or in the value of PR; for Baltic Sea citizens the interest is in keeping the shoreline clean.

Due to maritime managers only partly being able to directly control the risk, there is an obvious need to use scientific tools to create maximum interest among shipping companies and insurance companies to avoid oil accidents. This financial aspect is clear when thinking about, for example, restoring lost species in the Gulf of Finland, which can be very expensive. All such costs must be estimated in advance to make actors realize what the total costs and biological damage could be, and to make the estimates acceptable in court treatment, which always follows large oil spills. The most important factor in companies' interest in accident avoidance, however, is the potential negative publicity that an involved oil company can suffer.

Conserving species

In many countries, nature conservation mostly focuses on the safeguarding of rare and threatened species, a relevant criteria in decision-making. There is no environment in the world like the brackish water of Baltic Sea. In the Gulf of Finland, there are about 70 IUCN classified threatened species, which live in such a microhabitat that an oil spill could destroy many, if not all, of the populations. There is a risk of permanently losing some unique species after such an accident, whereas aquaculture species such as rainbow trout are easy to replace.

Even though the Gulf is a well-studied area with a high number of scientific papers on biological oil spill risks and decision-making, there is still a hard decision to be made: in the case of a spill, do we safeguard an aquaculture unit, beaches or threatened beetles?

Further afield?

Whilst studying the Baltic is key, the idea of WGMABS' work being rolled out further was something raised by Sakari Kuikka.

"An important issue for ICES is, whether this working group subject should be expanded from the Baltic Sea area to other ICES areas. Risks in the Gulf of Finland are exceptionally high, but history has shown that risk analyses are needed in other areas, as well," he said.​​

 

WBMABS will publish its report on 20 December.​


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​Gulf of Finland; photo -​ Dmitriy Repin, ​​Fotolia.com

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Is oil spill risk controllable?

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