A lack of publicly available information about the chemical composition of fuel mined from tar sands hampers efforts to safeguard marine habitats. A new analysis recommends that officials gain a better understanding of the fuel’s environmental impacts before setting regulations.

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As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to overhaul energy and environmental regulations, a troubling question hangs over an emerging source of unconventional oil Trump has indicated he wants to expand. Bitumen – a tar-like fuel extracted from oil sands in Canada and elsewhere – is often stored in coastal areas and transported by ship. So, what are its potential effects on valuable ocean environments?

The short answer, according to a studypublished Dec. 20 in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, is: we have no idea. The study recommends collecting more information about the possible environmental effects of bitumen before making regulatory decisions.The Athabasca oil sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada, are a major producer of heavy crude oil. 

Although a great deal of research has focused on the effects of conventional oil spills, little information exists about potential impacts from spills of unconventional oil derived from the bitumen extracted from oil sands. Diluted bitumen is chemically distinct from conventional oil, and its composition varies according to the chemicals used to make the viscous material flow. Because manufacturers are not required to fully report the makeup of these chemical mixtures, little is known about bitumen products’ effects on marine life and food chains.

“There just isn’t enough science in the public eye to answer questions about the risk bitumen poses to the ocean,” said study lead author Stephanie Green, a Banting postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University. “We found almost no research about bitumen’s effects on marine species.”

These knowledge gaps make it impossible to create effective policies on oil sands development, transport and disaster response in the ocean. These issues are at the center of energy and environmental policy debate in Canada, America’s key source of oil sands products. Canada’s federal government recently approved expanding transport of diluted bitumen from inland deposits to the Pacific coast via pipeline.

“In this context, policymakers risk confusing the lack of evidence for particular environmental effects with evidence that there is no risk,” Green said.

The first-of-its-kind global analysis considered the footprint of existing and proposed oil sands developments and coastal transport routes, to reveal 15 different types of stress to ocean environments. These stresses range from oil spills and ship-animal collisions to ocean acidification and temperature increases caused by climate change, with oil sands products contributing more greenhouse gas per barrel than light crude oil throughout its lifecycle. In addition to noting the lack of information on many of these impacts, Green and colleagues concluded that many of these stresses are overlapping. Up to 10 of the 15 impact pathways co-occur within the footprint of proposed coastal tanker routes, but there are few scientific studies examining the effect of two or more impacts arising simultaneously.

“The gaps in scientific understanding we identified cast doubt on claims that risks can be effectively managed or mitigated,” said co-author Wendy Palen of Simon Fraser University. “Projects should not be considered in isolation, and multiple types of impacts need to be considered simultaneously. Everything is connected.”

To rectify the situation, the study’s authors recommend using a framework that can assess the consequences of multiple environmental impacts and their cumulative effects, including the ultimate fate of the petroleum products in the atmosphere. The authors urge scientists, governments, and industry to work together to fill information gaps so that the risks of such projects are known ahead of regulatory decisions in the United States and Canada.

“The findings in our paper are part of a broader effort by independent scientists to pull together what is known from various fields of research to inform sound decisions about energy and environmental policy,” said co-author Thomas Sisk of Northern Arizona University.

The Center for Ocean Solutions is an interdisciplinary center for ocean science, policy, and law at Stanford, in partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Co-authors of “Oil sands and the marine environment: current knowledge and future challenges” include researchers at Simon Fraser University, Oregon State University, Northern Arizona University, and the Hakai Institute.

Media Contacts:

Stephanie Green
Center of Ocean Solutions
(778) 808-0758

Rob Jordan
Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment
(650) 721-1881


Header Image Credit: Michael Collier


Where: Main Lecture Hall, Long Marine Lab, UC Santa Cruz
When: Friday, January 27th, 5:30-7:30pm
Register HERE by January 26th

Marine fisheries and coastal communities around the world are experiencing increasing rates of change and uncertainty generated by climate change, global markets, and other large-scale processes. Understanding how these local systems can anticipate, adapt, and respond to change requires interdisciplinary science, novel research frameworks and techniques, and direct engagement with local communities on the ground. Elena Finkbeiner shares her academic trajectory and research experience in the social-ecological sciences, exploring topics such as sustainability, resilience, collective action, and well-being in small-scale fisheries of the California Current.


Speaker: Elena Finkbeiner

Elena Finkbeiner is an early career fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions and a postdoctoral research fellow at Hopkins Marine Station. Her research explores how social-ecological systems can anticipate, respond, and adapt to change, and seeks to identify governance approaches that can achieve both environmental sustainability and human wellbeing. She uses small-scale fisheries as a model system for studying these processes, drawing from interdisciplinary science and a mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods, including surveys, interviews, analysis of official fisheries catch data, and game theory experiments. Elena earned her PhD in biology at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, Masters in Environmental Management at Duke University, and BS in ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz.




Elizabeth is the science communications intern at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions. She joined the team in October 2016. She has a Bachelor of Science in Marine Science from California State University Monterey Bay. During her undergraduate years, Elizabeth was involved in a data collection project that evaluated the effectiveness of the Marine Protected Areas in Monterey Bay. In her junior and senior year, she conducted a research project north of Santa Cruz and in Big Sur that focused on the direct and indirect community interactions between a common intertidal alga and invertebrates. She is now in her third year at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories under Dr. Michael Graham working towards a Masters of Science in Marine Ecology with a concentration in the biology of seaweeds.

During her time at CSUMB and into her time at MLML, Elizabeth volunteered as an adult mentor at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with the Student Oceanography Club. Her main role was to provide guidance and direction to junior high school students conducting research. Elizabeth also worked as an Ambassador for the Monterey Bay Aquarium from 2014-2015 providing interactive interpretations of the exhibits, behind the scenes tours, and communicating scientific concepts such as sustainability and conservation. In her last few months she also created and implemented interpretive services for deaf guests using American Sign Language.

Elizabeth hopes to take an interdisciplinary approach to conservation and sustainability through effective and entertaining communication with the public. In her free time she enjoys scuba diving, hiking with her dog, camping and reading a good book.

Contact Information:

Email: eramsay3@stanford.edu

Phone: 714-717-1616



Efforts to adopt effective marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean, a global commons containing the world’s most pristine marine ecosystems, are being thwarted by political infighting and fishing interests.

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By: Ker Than

Antarctica’s surrounding waters are home to some of the healthiest marine ecosystems on Earth and support thriving populations of krill, seabirds, fish and whales. But efforts to establish a network of effective Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean are being hobbled by political infighting and demands that prioritize fishing interests over conservation by members of the international consortium tasked with conserving the region, Stanford scientists say.

The findings, published Oct. 14 in Science, come as 24 countries and the European Union convene in Hobart, Australia, next week for the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), to resume negotiations of Southern Ocean MPAs.

Emperor Penguin and Ice-Breaker, John B. Weller.

“Our research shows that CCAMLR’s positions for and against MPAs have become entrenched,” said lead author Cassandra Brooks, a PhD candidate at Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “Negotiations have become entangled with larger global geopolitics and we see an emerging scramble for marine resources in this remote frontier.”

The authors argue that as a leader in international fisheries management, CCAMLR has the opportunity to set an example for ongoing negotiations at the United Nations level to develop a legal instrument for conserving biodiversity in international waters, also known as the high seas. “But if CCAMLR continues to fall short in its duties, it could set a sorry example with ramifications for marine protection in other parts of the world," said study coauthor Kristina Gjerde, senior high seas advisor at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and adjunct professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey California.

“It would send the message that fishing interests trump conservation, despite the global interests at stake,” Gjerde said. “It could raise doubts that nations will be able to set aside short-term national interests to confront global ocean challenges stemming from accelerating climate change. And finally, it is doubtful that these diminished sites would count toward global goals for MPAs as they would not meet the IUCN MPA criteria.”

Reverse burden of proof

Despite more than a decade of international negotiations informed by robust scientific planning, CCAMLR has failed to meet its goal of adopting a system of MPAs in the Southern Ocean to conserve biodiversity in the face of threats from climate change and potential overfishing, the authors say.

A major obstacle is agreement about the concept of “rational use,” which sets the terms under which CCAMLR’s member nations are allowed to fish in the Southern Ocean. The region contains some of Earth’s least exploited fish stocks, and its large populations of krill – small crustaceans that are food for the region’s fish, seabirds and whales – and toothfish have made it an increasingly prized fishing spot. Krill is valuable as fishmeal and for making health supplements, and toothfish are sold as lucrative “Chilean sea bass” around the world.

As originally defined, rational use required that fishing not cause irreversible damage to the greater marine ecosystems of the Southern Ocean and for precautionary catch limits and scientific oversight to be set in place. But as the number of CCAMLR’s fishing nations has grown, and as pressure increases to secure access to current and future resources in the Southern Ocean, some nations are pushing to equate rational use with the unfettered right to fish.

Countries such as China and Russia have argued against MPA proposals that in any way restrict fishing and demand sufficient evidence to show that fishing threatens ecosystems. “MPA opponents want to reverse the burden of proof,” said co-author Larry Crowder, science director of the Center for Ocean Solutions in Monterey, California, and a fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “When rational use was first negotiated, the whole idea was that you needed data in order to fish. Now, it’s being interpreted by some fishing nations as unequivocal fishing.”

Sunset clauses

Sunset clauses on the MPAs are another source of fierce debate. MPAs are usually established in perpetuity, but some CCAMLR member nations are advocating that Southern Ocean MPAs have built-in expiration dates ranging from 20 to 30 years. “Twenty years is shorter than the lifespan of most Antarctic predators which the MPAs are proposing to protect,” Brooks said. But not only are sunset clauses inconsistent with the stated goals of MPAs, they do not meet internationally established criteria for protected areas and may not qualify for global MPA targets, the authors warn.

Broader geopolitics have also infiltrated CCAMLR negotiations, the authors say. For example, poor international relations between nations – such as tensions between Russia and the United States over Crimea – seem to be spilling into the negotiating room. Nations opposing MPAs are being accused of not negotiating in good faith, while proponents of MPAs are accused of using MPAs as a political tool.

“The result is a breakdown of trust between member nations, causing a stalemate over MPAs,” Crowder said.

High seas implications

Two large MPAs are currently being negotiated at CCAMLR: one in the East Antarctic and one in the Ross Sea – a region that has been deemed “The Last Ocean” because it is perhaps the healthiest large marine ecosystem left on the planet.

“We’ve seen an East Antarctic and Ross Sea MPA come to CCAMLR’s decision-making table five times now without being adopted. Next week will be the sixth,” Brooks said. “Each year, during the course of negotiations, the proposed MPAs in these two regions have continued to be downsized, with ecologically critical areas removed and ‘research fishing zones’ added.”

With CCAMLR meetings set to resume on Oct. 17, Brooks and her co-authors urge member nations to find a way forward in upholding their mandate and meeting their commitment toward MPAs. “The Southern Ocean is our best-case scenario,” Brooks said. “If we can’t figure out how to protect marine ecosystems there, it suggests it will be extremely difficult to protect them anywhere else.”

Other co-authors on the paper, “Science-based management in decline in the Southern Ocean,” include Robert Dunbar of Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences; Lisa Curran, Stanford professor of anthropology and a fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; David Ainley of H.T. Harvey & Associates; Klaus Dodds of the University of London; and Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia.

Funding was provided by the Price Fellowship, the Switzer Foundation, the Center for Ocean Solutions, the National Science Foundation and OceanCanada.

Media contacts:

Cassandra Brooks
School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

Larry Crowder
Center for Ocean Solutions
(831) 333-2099

Ker Than
School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences
(650) 723-9820