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Research Questions

  1. What is the scope of current oil spill risks in the region?
  2. What are the current roles, capabilities, and capacities of oil-spill response partners?
  3. What gaps remain?
  4. What are potential mitigation strategies for oil-spill response in fresh water and ice?

The Great Lakes are a source of water for 40 million Americans and Canadians, an important recreational area, and a major shipping thoroughfare for commodities and other goods. They are also potentially becoming more vulnerable to spills because of increased domestic production of oil and petroleum products in the region.

To ensure that the region's responders are well prepared to tackle any potential spills in the Great Lakes, the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Marine Environmental Response Policy asked RAND's Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center to study the scope of current oil spill risks in the region; the roles, capabilities, and capacities of oil-spill response partners; and any gaps and potential mitigation strategies around oil-spill response in fresh water and ice.

To assess gaps in response capabilities and capacities, the research team analyzed scenarios that stakeholders have used to practice and assess oil-spill response in the past. The team also built a framework that responders can use to create new scenarios to practice capabilities that they have not tested before. Because of the limited amount of publicly available oil-spill response capability documentation, this research relied heavily on what was provided by the government sponsor, U.S. and Canadian oil-spill response organizations, various subject-matter experts, and Canadian governmental organizations. The research team reviewed oil-spill response policy; techniques, tactics, and procedures; and various area oil response plans and regulations to assess the gaps in oil-spill response.

Key Findings

  • Overall, response capabilities and capacity are robust, and risks are being managed in accordance with existing regulations and policy.
  • There is a high level of cooperation and willingness to collaborate, but some agencies are siloed and could improve their external communications and information-sharing, and their contributions to educating concerned citizens and community leaders about oil-spill response tactics, techniques, and procedures.
  • Potential cultural divergence among key stakeholders might be overcome by more collaboration and information-sharing.
  • Collectively, the Great Lakes response community appears to have clear roles and responsibilities. There are gaps in what existing scenarios cover, and developing scenarios more systematically and collaboratively could uncover undiscovered gaps in both capability and capacity.

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Marine Environmental Response Policy, Great Lakes Oil Spill Center of Expertise and conducted in the Infrastructure, Immigration, & Security Operations Program of the RAND Homeland Security Research Division.

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.