Oil Dispersants:

Additional Research Needed, Particularly on Subsurface and Arctic Applications

GAO-12-585: Published: May 30, 2012. Publicly Released: Jun 29, 2012.

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trimbled@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

According to experts, agency officials, and specialists, much is known about the use of chemical dispersants on the surface of the water, but gaps remain in several research areas. For example, experts generally agreed that there is a basic understanding of the processes that influence where and how oil travels through the water, but that more research was needed to quantify the actual rate at which dispersants biodegrade. In addition, all the experts GAO spoke with said that little is known about the application and effects of dispersants applied subsurface, noting that specific environmental conditions, such as higher pressures, may influence dispersants’ effectiveness. Knowledge about the use and effectiveness of dispersants in the Arctic is also limited, with less research conducted on dispersant use there than in temperate or tropical climates. For example, one expert noted that more research is needed on biodegradation rates for oil in the Arctic because the cold temperature may slow the process down.

Federal agencies have funded over $15.5 million of dispersant-related research since fiscal year 2000, with more than half of the total funding occurring since the Deepwater Horizon incident. Most of these 106 projects were funded by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Over 40 percent of the research projects were focused at least in part on testing dispersant effectiveness. For example, BSEE funded 28 projects on the efficacy of dispersants on different types of oil and under different ocean conditions. In contrast, relatively few projects were focused on applying dispersants subsurface or in the Arctic. Specifically, NSF funded three projects looking at the use and effects of subsurface dispersant application, and BSEE and EPA funded the eight projects related to the use of chemical dispersants in Arctic or cold water environments.

Researchers face resource, scientific, and communication challenges related to dispersant research. Agency officials, experts, and specialists identified inconsistent and limited levels of funding as a challenge to developing research on the use and effects of chemical dispersants. For example, because support for dispersant research fluctuates, with temporary increases following a major spill, it is difficult for federal agencies to fund longer term studies, such as those needed to understand chronic toxicological effects of dispersants. In addition, researchers face scientific challenges with respect to dispersants, including being able to conduct research that replicates realistic oil spill conditions. Conducting research in the open ocean faces several logistical barriers, and laboratory experiments are unable to fully approximate the scale and complexity of ocean conditions. Lastly, agency officials, experts, and specialists told GAO that it can be a challenge to communicate and track research. Although some organizations have attempted to compile lists of dispersant-related research, currently there is no mechanism that tracks dispersant research across all sources and highlights past and ongoing research projects. For example, the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research—a multi-agency committee chaired by the Coast Guard—maintains a list of federally sponsored oil spill related research, but does not track or cross-reference related research that has been funded solely by industry or nongovernmental sources.

Why GAO Did This Study

In April 2010, an explosion onboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico led to a release of approximately 206 million gallons of oil. When an oil spill occurs, responders have several options for managing the environmental impacts, including using chemical dispersants to break the oil into smaller droplets, which can promote biodegradation and help prevent oil from coming on shore. GAO was asked to review (1) what is known about the use of chemical dispersants and their effects, and any knowledge gaps or limitations; (2) the extent to which federal agencies and other entities have taken steps to enhance knowledge on dispersant use and its effects; and (3) challenges, if any, that researchers and federal agencies face in their attempts to enhance knowledge. GAO collaborated with the National Academy of Sciences to identify and recruit experts on dispersant use and conducted interviews with these experts, agency officials, and other specialists, and reviewed key documents and reports.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research periodically provide updated information on key dispersant research by nonfederal sources. Also, the Interagency Committee should ensure that subsurface and Arctic applications are among the future priority research areas. The Departments of the Interior, Commerce, and Homeland Security, and the EPA generally concurred with the recommendations made to them.

For more information, contact David C. Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or trimbled@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To enhance the knowledge of the effectiveness and potential environmental effects of chemical dispersants, the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior, the Administrator of EPA, and the Commandant of the Coast Guard should direct their respective agencies, NOAA, BSEE, EPA, and the Coast Guard, to coordinate and explore ways to better obtain more scientifically robust information during spills without hindering response efforts through enhancement of monitoring protocols and development of new data collection tools.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To enhance the knowledge of the effectiveness and potential environmental effects of chemical dispersants, the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior, the Administrator of EPA, and the Commandant of the Coast Guard should direct their respective agencies, NOAA, BSEE, EPA, and the Coast Guard, to coordinate and explore ways to better obtain more scientifically robust information during spills without hindering response efforts through enhancement of monitoring protocols and development of new data collection tools.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To enhance the knowledge of the effectiveness and potential environmental effects of chemical dispersants, the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior, the Administrator of EPA, and the Commandant of the Coast Guard should direct their respective agencies, NOAA, BSEE, EPA, and the Coast Guard, to coordinate and explore ways to better obtain more scientifically robust information during spills without hindering response efforts through enhancement of monitoring protocols and development of new data collection tools.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To enhance the knowledge of the effectiveness and potential environmental effects of chemical dispersants, the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior, the Administrator of EPA, and the Commandant of the Coast Guard should direct their respective agencies, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), BSEE, EPA, and the Coast Guard, to coordinate and explore ways to better obtain more scientifically robust information during spills without hindering response efforts through enhancement of monitoring protocols and development of new data collection tools.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure existing and ongoing dispersant research is adequately captured and broadly available to different groups and generations of researchers, to ensure that new research undertaken by the federal government will not duplicate other research efforts, and to ensure that adequate attention is given to better understanding dispersant use in deep water and Arctic environments, the Commandant of the Coast Guard should direct the Chair of the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research to, in coordination with member agencies, as part of the Interagency Committee’s efforts to help guide federal research, identify information on key ongoing dispersant-related research, including research sponsored by state governments, industry, academia, and other oil pollution research organizations. This information should be provided in the planned and future revisions to the research and technology plan. In addition, periodically update and disseminate this information, for example, as part of the Interagency Committee’s biennial report to Congress on its activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure existing and ongoing dispersant research is adequately captured and broadly available to different groups and generations of researchers, to ensure that new research undertaken by the federal government will not duplicate other research efforts, and to ensure that adequate attention is given to better understanding dispersant use in deep water and Arctic environments, the Commandant of the Coast Guard should direct the Chair of the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research to, in coordination with member agencies, ensure that in the course of revising the Interagency Committee’s research and technology plan, applications of dispersants subsurface and in Arctic conditions are among the areas prioritized for subsequent research.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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