Social Disruption from Oil Spills and Spill Response

FY 2008 | 1 – Understand | 8/10/15

Social Disruption from Oil Spills and Spill Response

T. Webler, Social and Environmental Research Institute
Contract Term: 07/01/08 – 06/30/10
Award: $36,993

Scope of Work:

This project is an addition to a larger project being funded by the Coastal Response Research Center. The OSRI contribution allows Cordova to be an additional study site for this research project. Oil spill response planners never disregard the human dimensions of oil spills. In fact, the National Contingency Plan requires that items of economic and environmental importance that are threatened by a spill be covered in the plan. However, the strength of ecological concerns and the wealth of information on ecological sensitivity tend to be primary drivers in contingency planning. The socioeconomic lags behind the ecological in terms of readily available information and tools to assess sensitivity. Social endpoints that are acutely threatened are protected in an emergency response, but the systematic assessment of social and economic effects is not widely done in area-based contingency planning processes. This research project investigates what is involved in bringing a systematic assessment of socioeconomic vulnerability considerations into area-based oil spill contingency planning. While this project has one eye on the ultimate goal of producing practical decision-support or social impact assessment tools, it presupposes that several types of information need to be collected, evaluated, and synthesized before such tools can be constructed. Specifically: (1) human dimensions endpoints threatened by oil spills need to be systematically identified; (2) the relationships between these endpoints, effects, and planning and management actions should be evaluated; (3) the sufficiency of existing data and data-analysis tools to characterize and anticipate these causal relations must be assessed. Initial inquiries with emergency responders and contingency planners into these questions have validated their importance.

Drawing on existing data wherever possible, we propose to review qualitative data to reveal the types of human dimensions endpoints that matter in oil spills. In Phase 1, we will document how the importance of endpoints can be understood and, eventually, measured using the conceptual framework of vulnerability. We will meet with experienced personnel as part of three case studies to identify endpoints of concern and use the conceptual framework of vulnerability to identify key factors influencing losses. The information we gather will be structured in a way that facilitates planning interventions. In Phase 2, we will investigate to what extent existing data are capable of depicting the human dimensions considerations identified in Phase 1 and we will propose recommendations for how a planning process that has been strongly led by ecological considerations can be broadened to also include the most important human dimensions. These recommendations will also summarize how oil spill planning can proceed using a perspective that highlights the coupled human and natural systems.