IJC’s Science Advisory Board investigates potential impacts of crude oil transport in Great Lakes


Oil production in central northern United States and western Canada has increased rapidly since 2010. Its transport near or through the Great Lakes region via pipelines and rail has expanded as a result. What does this mean for the lakes in terms of the environmental threats posed by crude oil transport, and what are the potential ecological impacts from a spill in freshwater ecosystems like the Great Lakes?

The Science Priority Committee of the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board investigated these questions as well as areas of particular vulnerability to oil spills and potential responses to spills. Its findings and recommendations for additional research and monitoring needs are included in their report, Potential Ecological Impacts of Crude Oil Transport in the Great Lakes Basin.

When available scientific literature is considered, the committee found that all levels of the aquatic food chain would be impacted by a spill, from plankton to fish to fish-eating birds and mammals. Because the lakes provide the largest source of fresh surface water for almost 40 million people and drinking water for many of these residents, the risk of a spill affecting drinking water may be significant, particularly when currents transport crude oil to the vicinity of drinking water intakes.

Existing crude oil transport infrastructure near or in the Great Lakes makes the ecosystem particularly vulnerable to spills, particularly in 15 areas the committee identified based on their level of biodiversity and as highly valued habitats for fish spawning, such as estuaries, rivers and bays. Most areas are near oil pipelines or rail corridors, and five areas are near refineries.

The committee also concluded that adequate response to an oil spill to minimize damage is critical. The report highlights the key government agencies responsible for spill response, as well as the types of actions undertaken to contain and remove spilled oil. Despite capabilities that exist for spill response, challenges remain for spill response in ice-covered waters, for spills of heavier crudes that sink immediately following a spill or after weathering, and for sensitive habitats where response actions may negatively impact those habitats.

Additional research is needed on a number of topics related to impacts of various crude oil types on freshwater ecosystems. The report should inform research and monitoring activities and help to improve spill response measures as well as potentially aid in decisions on oil transport infrastructure siting.


The Great Lakes Science Advisory Board is one of the key advisory groups to the IJC, which reports on progress made under the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the lakes and their connecting waters.  The IJC was established under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to help the United States and Canada prevent and resolve disputes over the use of the waters the two countries share.

For more information:

Sally Cole-Misch         519-257-6733              colemischs@windsor.ijc.org
Matthew Child             519-257-6706              childm@windsor.ijc.org