Cover: Developing the Great Lakes National Center of Expertise for Oil Spill Preparedness and Response

Developing the Great Lakes National Center of Expertise for Oil Spill Preparedness and Response

An Opportunity to Reduce Risk and Impacts of Future Spills in Freshwater

Published Aug 31, 2021

by Anna Jean Wirth, Dulani Woods, Katherine Anania, Gary Cecchine, Debra Knopman


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Research Questions

  1. What should be the primary activities of the GL NCOE?
  2. With whom should the GL NCOE partner to help conduct center activities and fulfill Coast Guard marine environmental protection goals?
  3. What are key near-, mid-, and long-term goals for the GL NCOE?
  4. How should the GL NCOE utilize its resources to succeed in its primary activities?
  5. Where should the GL NCOE be located?

The Great Lakes — Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superior — form the largest body of surface fresh water on the planet. The Great Lakes basin is home to more than 30 million people in the United States, and the lakes provide drinking water to 40 million people in the United States and Canada and are vital to the economies of both countries.

Oil spills threaten the water quality and ecosystems of the Great Lakes. Vessels, pipelines, rail, and on- and nearshore facilities cause most of the spills in the region. Although most spills on the lakes are less than 10 gallons, most technologies that exist to mitigate damage from oil spills were developed for saltwater environments; less progress has been made on improving methods of containment and removal in freshwater and ice conditions, which differ in density, water-circulation patterns, and ecosystems from those found in salt water.

In 2018, Congress passed a bill that directed the U.S. Coast Guard to establish the Great Lakes National Center of Expertise for Oil Spill Preparedness and Response (GL NCOE). In February 2020, the Coast Guard asked the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC) to develop an analytical approach to and make recommendations for the near- and long-term trajectories of the GL NCOE, as well as its staffing needs, potential partnerships, and location. The authors of this report conducted research and analyses to assist the Coast Guard in beginning and continuing the crucial work of this new center.

Key Findings

  • The GL NCOE can be the key facilitator of translating cutting edge scientific and technological advances from those who are conducting the research to the operators.
  • The GL NCOE can serve as a repository of knowledge and a coordinator of research across organizations to close gaps and advance the scientific and engineering agenda related to the concerns unique to freshwater oil-spill response.
  • There are more than 75 partners with which the GL NCOE would need to coordinate to conduct key activities.
  • Drawing from the expertise of partners by having representatives of those organizations join the GL NCOE could provide necessary expertise and promote partnership building.
  • The GL NCOE can cover all or most areas of expertise and necessary skills with a minimum staffing footprint of one experienced Coast Guard officer and two or three civilians.
  • Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, meets the infrastructure criteria specified by Congress and is home to three institutions of higher learning with adequate research facilities. Other locations could meet the legislative criteria, depending on the importance placed on research-institution characteristics.


  • Balancing the prioritization of resources will be a key challenge for the GL NCOE. After the operational expenses of the GL NCOE, the remainder of the annual budget could be applied to personnel, purchasing of equipment, or research. All three of these categories will support the activities of the GL NCOE and its long-term goals, but choosing the balance of funding among them will require careful consideration of the GL NCOE's performance goals in the near and longer terms. Similarly, managing the bandwidth of center personnel as a limited resource will be important to meet the Coast Guard's priorities. Personnel should consider championing activities strategically and balancing research initiatives with demands for translating the science, convening, and coordination.
  • The GL NCOE is mandated by legislation to do many things — training, coordinating across partners, equipment modernization, and others — and runs the risk of getting pulled in too many directions. In the first few years of the center's operation, leadership might find it most productive to focus on prioritizing activities and demonstrating clear progress in a few areas rather than aiming for limited progress across all.
  • Coordination with partners will be a key task of the GL NCOE to, among other things, avoid duplication of effort where the GL NCOE overlaps with the missions of other organizations. However, there are far too many stakeholders to significantly engage with them all at the GL NCOE's current funding level. Developing scoped engagement strategies will be necessary to conserve GL NCOE's staff bandwidth.

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard (CG) Headquarters Office of Marine Environmental Response Policy Interagency Coordination Division (CG-MER-3) and conducted by the Strategy, Policy and Operations Program within the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.