The best way to address the concerns of the public after a spill is to develop and transmit clear and complete information in a timely fashion. The fate of the oil remaining at sea must be studied, the evolution of the affected stocks and ecosystems must be analysed and, most important of all, environmental and economic damages must be assessed.The way in which these two types of damage will be compensated are different. In most parts of the world, economic losses will be compensated through an international compensation fund, calculated through estimated loss of profit sustained by the claimant where this can be satisfactorily demonstrated. Also, in most parts of the world, environmental damage is compensated rather through restoration actions than in money.
The Impact of the Sea Empress
Press headlines at the time of the spill:
World Wildlife Fund update, a few months after: "...impacts (...) will not be fully known for months or even years. Some estimates for full recovery of the ecosystem - if it can fully recover - are as long as 30 years." The Sea Empress, an ecological disaster, 1996
Scientific community assessment, 2 years after: "The main impacts all occurred at the time of the spill or shortly afterwards, and there appear to have been few major longer term effects. Indeed, several of the affected species seem to have substantially recovered."
The Environmental Impact of the Sea Empress Oil Spill, 1998
A key reference work which explores the question of the impacts of oil spilled at sea is a study entitled Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects. This study is in fact part of a larger project which dates back to the early 1970s, when scientists began to realise that a considerable amount of pollutants were being discharged into the marine environment. In 1973, the US National Research Council organised a workshop to address this issue, which culminated in the publication of the NRC report entitled Petroleum in the Marine Environment. This report highlighted the lack of quantitative data on the subject.
This work was later updated to include significant new quantitative data, upon the request of the US Coast Guard, to produce Oil in the Sea: Inputs, Fates and Effects, published in 1985. Since this date, a vast quantity of data has been accumulated and new computational analysis techniques have been developed. Therefore, in 2003 an updated and improved 265 page report was published: Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects. This study was compiled by the ‘Committee on Oil in the Sea: Inputs, Fates, and Effects’, a committee of fourteen engineers and scientists from a wide range of technical backgrounds. The resulting work is a systematic and comprehensive approach to the discharge of petroleum into the world’s oceans.
Not all decision-makers in every country are fully fluent in English and the lack of a reference book in the national language has been recognised in some countries. This was the case for France in the aftermath of the Erika incident, giving rise to the production of a key reference work in French, in the form of an unprecedented study: a comparative analysis of 17 oil spills throughout the world over the previous 35 years. It addresses the highly contentious issue of the long term harmful impacts of an oil spill on human health and the marine environment.
This project, carried out upon the request of the French Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development and entitled Marées noires et environnement (black tides and the environment), was defined, supervised and assessed by a steering committee made up of representatives of the Ministry and distinguished scientists from diverse backgrounds. It was published jointly by the Institut océanographique de Paris, the Ministry and Cedre in 2004.