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Consequences of oil spills: a review and framework for informing planning

Stephanie E. Chang, University of British Columbia
Jeremy Stone, University of British Columbia
Kyle Demes, University of British Columbia; Simon Fraser University
Marina Piscitelli, University of British Columbia


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As oil transportation worldwide continues to increase, many communities are at risk of oil spill disasters and must anticipate and prepare for them. Factors that influence oil spill consequences are myriad and range from the biophysical to the social. We provide a summary literature review and overview framework to help communities systematically consider the factors and linkages that would influence consequences of a potential oil spill. The focus is on spills from oil tanker accidents. Drawing primarily on empirical studies of previous oil spill disasters, we focused on several main domains of interest: the oil spill itself, disaster management, the physical marine environment, marine biology, human health, economy, and policy. Key variables that influence the severity of consequences are identified, and significant interactions between variables are delineated. The framework can be used to clarify the complexity of oil spill impacts, identify lessons that may be transferable from other oil spill disasters, develop scenarios for planning, and inform risk analysis and policy debates in localities that are seeking to understand and reduce their vulnerability to potential spill disasters.

As a case study, the framework is used to consider potential oil spills and consequences in Vancouver, Canada. Major increases in oil tanker traffic are anticipated in this region, creating urgent new demands for risk information, disaster management planning, and policy responses. The case study identifies particular conditions that distinguish the Vancouver context from other historic events; in particular, proximity to a densely populated urban area, the type of oil being transported, financial compensation schemes, and local economic structure. Drawing lessons from other oil spill disasters is important but should be undertaken with recognition of these key differences. Some types of impacts that have been relatively inconsequential in previous events may be very significant in a Vancouver case.

Key words

framework; impacts; oil spills; Vancouver

Copyright © 2014 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087