spilled onto water. This natural “weathering” makes the oil more difficult to disperse through time; consequently, the window of opportunity for effective dispersant application is early, usually within hours to 1–2 days after a release under most conditions, though there are exceptions. The decision to apply dispersants is thus time sensitive and complex. Given the potential impacts that dispersed oil may have on water-column and seafloor biota and habitats, thoughtful analysis is required prior to the spill event so that decisionmakers understand the potential impacts with and without dispersant application. Thus, decisionmaking regarding the use of dispersants falls into two broad temporal categories: (1) before the event during spill contingency planning; and (2) shortly after the initial event, generally within the first 12 to 48 hours.

In recognition of the increased potential to use dispersants in a variety of settings, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the USCG, and the American Petroleum Institute (API) asked the National Academies to form a committee of experts to review the adequacy of existing information and ongoing research regarding the efficacy and effects of dispersants as an oil spill response technique in the United States.2 Emphasis was placed on understanding the limitations imposed by the various methods used in these studies and on recommending steps that should be taken to better understand the efficacy of dispersant use and the effect of dispersed oil on freshwater, estuarine, and marine environments. Specifically, the committee’s task was to:

  • review and evaluate ongoing research and existing literature on dispersant use (including international studies) with emphasis on (a) factors controlling dispersant effectiveness (e.g., environmental conditions, dispersant application vehicles and strategies, and oil properties, particularly as the spilled oil weathers), (b) the short- and long-term fate of chemically or naturally dispersed oil, and (c) the toxicological effects of chemically and naturally dispersed oil;

  • evaluate the adequacy of the existing information about dispersants to support risk-based decisionmaking on response options for a variety of spatially and temporally defined oil spills;

  • recommend steps that should be taken to fill existing knowledge gaps, with emphasis to be placed on how laboratory and mesoscale ex-


A similar request was put to the National Academies in the mid 1980s, leading to the publication of the 1989 NRC report Using Oil Spill Dispersants on the Sea. The current report is not truly an update of the 1989 report, as it selectively revisits some topics while including discussions on issues that have emerged since that time. Many readers may, therefore, find the assessments and summaries in Using Oil Spill Dispersants on the Sea of value.

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