Dr Kenneth Lee
(Executive Director, Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research, or COOGER, Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
What power the ocean has!
The ocean changes your attitudes, and if you live inland and if you live by the ocean or if you grow up by the ocean, I think there’s a strong feeling always to go back home to the ocean.
Part of the thing about the ocean is that you appreciate what’s around you because the ocean is changing all the time.
COOGER is the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research, and we’re a Centre of Expertise within Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and what we are, we’re a virtual centre that pulls together scientists from across the country to tackle environmental issues related to the energy sector in the ocean.
And what we do is to provide the science for decision makers who put together policy and regulations to ensure that we’re protecting the marine environment.
“Hey, Zhengkai. What’s going on?”
“I’ve found a lot of information in terms of biodegradation of hydrocarbons in icy environments.”
“Ok. One of the things we’re going to have to start looking at is…” (conversation fades out)
Dr Kenneth Lee
The strength of COOGER is that we can look at a problem and identify the best scientists to work on that problem and bring them in to work with us as a team, and rather than taking the typical approach where scientists work on the same topic that they specialize in, what we do is we identify issues and have an ever-evolving team.
That synergy between various types of scientists in different disciplines really adds to the strength of the work that we do here in COOGER.
The worst spill that I’ve seen is in the Gulf of Mexico. You’re looking at a situation where the oil was coming out of the bottom of the ocean at 1500 metres depth or more. It really hit when the US government agencies called and said “We really need your assistance. Can you pack up and get down here as quickly as possible?”
On April 20, 2010, the offshore drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon, exploded after a blowout.
It sank, leaving a partially capped oil well a mile below the surface and leaking up to 60,000 barrels of oil a day in to the Gulf of Mexico for almost 3 months.
Following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, you can imagine the public’s view, as well as that of the regulators, to protect the environment is much higher.
One of the things they may not realize is that there is a lot of research going on behind the scenes, both by the industry as well as government agencies, where we’re looking at what are the potential environmental impacts and looking at the science before we make decisions.
(Manager - Hydrocarbon Laboratory, COOGER, Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
So what we do here is we actually test dispersants. We look at the risks associated with dispersants or the remedial technique for an oil spill, then policies and guidelines are established on acceptable use for these particular remediable designs for an oil spill.
Dr Kenneth Lee
Chemical oil dispersants are chemicals that we add to break up oil spills, because when you have an oil spill, as we all know, typically the oil floats on the water. When you add chemical oil dispersants, they act like dishwashing detergent, and it breaks the oil into very small droplets that go into the water column. By doing so, we’re enhancing the rate that the oil is actually degraded by bacteria.
- Oil floating on water surface
- Dispersant added to oil slick
- Oil slick is broken down into tiny droplets into the water column
Conducting experiments around the world with international partners, we were trying to understand why is the oil not breaking down in these sediments when it comes ashore, and we realized that there were limiting factors, and these limiting factors were things like nutrients and oxygen, and so we started doing work on can we apply nutrients to sediments to speed up the degradation of oil.
So the concept of using bacteria to break down oil from oil spills, it’s no different from a farmer planting his crops and adding fertilizer. So we found that we could add fertilizer to beaches and degrade the oil much faster. In fact we could accomplish in one summer what would occur naturally in a decade.
“ We’ll be putting our container onboard ship and loading all of our equipment on the container.”
“We’ll basically be doing sampling…” (conversation fade out)
Dr Kenneth Lee
There are lots of emerging challenges in the field that we work in looking at energy in the marine environment, and one of the things that the public doesn’t realize is in the Arctic, a lot of energy may come from tidal power because there are some areas where there is a lot of current between these islands, and for these small communities, renewable energy may be the source of the future.
The Arctic. You feel it is special, there’s no doubt about it, because there hasn’t been that much development up there, there hasn’t been the air pollution up there and the habitat is different and that habitat is unique.
If an oil spill occurs in the Arctic, how fast does it recover? So if and when a spill occurs in the Arctic, do we have the tools to respond? We’re trying to develop those tools and make sure they do work, and to understand what the negative impacts from applying these tools could also be.
There are these feelings that the Arctic is more sensitive, but of course what we want to do is to conduct the science to actually look at the facts.
I’m sure a lot of people think that its very glamorous that you’re going on a research expedition, but once you go on these cruises, after a while, you realize the ocean is all around you and you’ve got a lot of work to do too.
But the fact of the matter is that you are inspired by the research that you are doing and it drives you to continue working on board ship and do those long days of experiments because it’s interesting.
I come to work everyday thinking how many people get the opportunity to look around them, think of problems and try to look for ways of resolving them. That’s what I do and I enjoy it.
It’s a challenge.