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NJIT Expert Appointed to National Academies Committee to Assess Oil Spills

Michel Boufadel, director of NJIT's Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection, will serve on a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee charged with assessing the environmental impact of spills of the heavy Canadian crude oil known as oil sand.

Michel Boufadel, director of NJIT’s Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection, has been appointed to a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee charged with assessing the environmental impact of spills of the heavy Canadian crude oil known as oil sand.

The oil, extracted from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, is currently delivered across the border, but its volume would increase substantially if the proposed XL-Keystone Pipeline wins approval from the U.S. government. The pipeline would transport the oil to the Gulf of Mexico for use in the U.S. and for delivery to world markets. The committee’s task is to determine whether it differs sufficiently from other crude oils transported in U.S. pipelines to warrant modifications of the regulations governing spill preparedness, response plans and cleanups.

A professor of civil and environmental engineering who specializes in the impact of oil spills on coastal regions, Boufadel has spent several years studying the residual effects of an oil sand spill from a pipeline in Kalamazoo, Mich. that ruptured during a storm in 2010.

“Oil sand consists primarily of bitumen, which is very sticky, and we’ve seen that it can smother plants and other organisms, including filter feeders such as krill and fish. It also doesn’t biodegrade as quickly as other oils; many of its constituents linger longer in the environment, binding to sediments and sinking to the bottom, while other oils tend to stay on the surface,” Boufadel said, adding, however, that oil sand is not as soluble in water as other oils, “and thus its acute toxicity might not be as strong as other oils.”

The National Academies committee members have been asked to characterize bitumen’s behavior following a spill, research its impacts on the environment and recommend strategies for responding to spills, including possible new technologies, he said.

The committee will complete its report, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation, within a year. The study follows an earlier NAS report examining the likelihood of a bitumen spill as compared with other crude oils transported by pipeline.

“Both studies are being performed to assist the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in addressing Congressional mandates as the proportion of diluted bitumen being transported in the U.S continues to rise,” said the study's director, Douglas Friedman, Ph.D., a senior program officer with the Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology at the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

A bill approving the pipeline’s construction has passed the U.S. House of Representatives, but fell a vote short in the Senate last month. Proponents have vowed to bring the bill up again in the new legislative session next year.

"Canadian oil sand is increasingly available to world markets, including the U.S.,” Boufadel said. “But at this point we have less experience with it than other crude oils, and so responding to spills is a challenge.”

Since its establishment in 2012, the Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection has received several major grants from the federal government, as well as international institutions and agencies, to investigate oil behaviors in the environment. Boufadel provided technical analyses and remedial strategies in response to the two largest oil spills in U.S. history, the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez spills.

By Tracey Regan

tregan@njit.edu