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Understanding Oil and Water in the Great Lakes

"Many things in the 21st century are so complicated that you have to know a lot just to be undecided," said Minnesota Sea Grant Maritime Extension Educator Dale Bergeron. This was one of Bergeron's take-home messages from the Crude Move Oil Transportation Symposium, a meeting he helped to organize. The symposium explored the nuances of how crude oil and other petroleum-based products move through the Great Lakes region.

Citizens, businesses and communities need crude oil to move safely from one place to another. Where and how the oil travels has been the point of many recent conversations, engineering projects, some protests and several arrests.

About 130 transportation experts, petroleum industry representatives and natural resource professionals spent two days in June 2017 examining how crude oil is moved throughout the Great Lakes region with a goal of improving hazard management and decision-making while recognizing the costs and benefits associated with different modes of transport for crude oil. The Crude Move Oil Transportation Symposium was organized and facilitated by Bergeron and other Great Lakes Sea Grant staff.

One of the outcomes of that meeting is Proceedings of Crude Move Symposium: Oil Transportation Infrastructure, Economics, Risk, Hazards and Lessons Learned. Highlights include the importance of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Response and Restoration in cleaning up oil and chemical spills, the safety practices of oil transportation companies, and how regulations and insurance companies seek to mitigate risks and indemnify loss.

"There was a time before crude oil and there will be time after crude oil, too. But for now, we need to engage our best technology and most equitable processes to move oil safely throughout the Great Lakes," Bergeron said, reflecting on the outcomes of the symposium.

Director of the University of Minnesota's St. Anthony Falls Laboratory and professor of mechanical engineering, Dr. Lain Shen, is helping Sea Grant prepare for and potentially minimize risks in the event that an oil spill needs to be cleaned up in the Great Lakes. With funding from Minnesota Sea Grant, Dr. Shen is refining computer simulations that predict how oil might move in a lake like Superior. He studies flow systems in nature by mimicking them in computer code and accessing the processing capacity of the University of Minnesotaís supercomputers. When oil spills in water, weather matters. Shen says what happens at the water's surface and the nature of the oil droplet can drive where the oil ends up and therefore how it can be cleaned up. High winds and severe conditions such as flooding and high waves can make the damages worse.

"To capture wind and to capture waves and to understand the currents beneath is a complicated problem. We have learned a lot by mimicking different natural conditions, like wind, waves, eddies and currents, with computers." Shen said. "Learning these things in the field isnít practical, or possible, or for that matter, ecologically safe."

Research such as Shen's can help inform safer oil transportation practices. Outreach like Bergeron's will help people use science-based information to find their way through complicated problems.

"Complicated problems are not easily solved with a single solution, only adaptive management," Bergeron said. "Finding the best path will only be possible if we keep learning and changing our awareness."

By Sharon Moen and Rachel Wachtler
January 2018

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