Intentions Paper: Enhancing Oil Spill Response - Alternative Response Measures

On this page


Canada uses large volumes of oil that are transported through Canada's supply chain to domestic and international markets for use in manufacturing, home heating, transportation fuels, and the creation of many products. As a result, oil maintains a strong presence in Canada, and although the risk of an oil spill is very low, it cannot be eliminated.

To minimize impacts on the environment and communities, Canada must be prepared in order to prevent further oil from entering the environment and to remove or manage the spilled oil as fast as possible.

For this purpose, Canada has comprehensive oil spill prevention, preparedness, and response systems designed to prevent and effectively manage oil spills across the oil supply chain. Canada's current approach for response relies on containing and collecting the oil using mechanical measures, such as sorbents, booms and skimmers. These measures are effective in responding to small and locally contained oil spills, as well as protecting specific areas or habitats along the shoreline. However, they also have limitations, such as when used to address spills that are large or occur under challenging conditions (e.g., remote locations, presence of ice).

To further strengthen Canada's ability to respond to oil spills, the federal government is considering enabling the careful and appropriate use of Alternative Response Measures (ARMs) as additional oil spill response tools. This will improve oil spill response by taking advantage of well-established techniques and technologies, as well as allow consideration of emerging techniques and technologies. ARMs include a broad range of products, processes, and techniques for responding to oil spills and reducing their environmental impacts. They include products such as spill-treating agents that change the fate and behaviour of spilled oil, processes to allow the return of cleaner water to the spill area, and techniques such as moving oil stranded along a shoreline to the water to enhance recovery or natural degradation or burning spilled oil off the water's surface.

As a first step, the federal government is contemplating legislative changes to establish a national framework to enable the careful and appropriate use of ARMs, as additional tools within the existing response system when their use would be beneficial for the protection of the environment. The framework would enable a number of safeguards to be put in place, including legislative requirements, regulations, and operational and technical guidance, to ensure that ARMs are used when it is determined that they will likely result in a net environmental benefit. This framework would be applicable to the use of ARMs across the supply chain for oil, including; marine shipping, offshore exploration and production operations, and federally-regulated pipelines.

This policy intentions paper provides an overview of a possible ARMs Framework for oil spill response in Canada and provides you with an opportunity to submit your feedback on proposed legislative safeguards that would ensure the safe and appropriate use of ARMs.

Current Response Options: Science and Decision-Making Process

Over the past five decades, the federal government has built one of the world's leading oil spill research programs with extensive experience and expertise in the study of oil fate and behaviour, physical/chemical properties, petroleum forensics, spill countermeasures, field response, and oil spill modelling. As part of its ongoing research activities, Canada is evaluating and characterizing the properties of petroleum products to anticipate their behaviour and toxicity in the environment in the event of oil spills.

Oil spills are complex and each spill is unique. In Canada, a wide variety of petroleum products are transported every day, ranging from light crude oils, heavy fuels and bitumen-based products. Each type of petroleum product has its own characteristics, and will behave differently when it enters the environment, posing different challenges to cleanup operations.

As soon as oil is spilled, whether on land or in the water, the oil's physical and chemical properties begin to change because of exposure to the sun, air, water and/or soils. The lighter parts of the oil evaporate into air, the soluble parts dissolve into the water, wind and waves will cause some of the oil to form droplets in the water, oil droplets can interact with particles in the water and possibly sink, or oil can form water-oil mixtures (called emulsions). Collectively, these processes and changes to the oil are known as “weathering”. The oil can also remain on the water's surface to spread and reach sensitive shorelines or move from the land to reach waterways that can greatly increase the area of impact of the spill.

The earlier and more efficiently that responders can reach and manage the spill before the oil spreads and transforms as a result of weathering, the better the ability to protect the environment and human health. The primary goal is always to best protect vulnerable resources and remediate any oil pollution damage.

Many factors contribute to the decision-making process when determining how best to respond. For example, physical conditions such as wind, waves, currents, tides, landscape structure, temperature, and the presence of ice or suspended particles in the water will influence the movement and distribution of the oil within the environment. Such factors change how the oil behaves, where it goes and the resources affected, and influences what response options are possible and appropriate.

When a spill occurs, decisions often must be made with great urgency about the actions that should be taken to control the spread and recovery of spilled oil, and in the protection of sensitive and valuable resources. Emergency responders, such as the response organizations acting on behalf of the polluter, government officials, industry experts, local communities and Indigenous knowledge keepers, start by compiling the information known about the nature of the specific spill and the resources that may be affected. They analyze the potential advantages, disadvantages and trade-offs of available response measures, their ability to protect resources and risk mitigation strategies, and then decide on the appropriate response strategy. This analysis process is based on the best available information, such as the type of oil spilled, weather conditions, environmental sensitivities, and potential socio-economic, cultural, and community impacts. It is also iterative, incorporating new information and knowledge as it becomes available, as well as adapting to the changing conditions of the spill.

Current Response Tools

Current oil spill response equipment typically used in Canada includes:

  • Booms: floating, physical barriers that capture and contain oil so that it can be recovered from on-water or land-based spills. Booms are also used to protect sensitive areas from an oil spill.
  • Skimmers and vacuum trucks: devices that remove oil from the water's surface or from on land using vacuum suction or mechanical equipment to collect and remove of the oil.
  • Sorbents: substances that capture oil that adheres to the surface or absorbs into the interior of the material's structure. These are most often used to capture floating and dispersed oil, remove final traces of oil at the surface, or in areas that cannot be reached by skimmers.

Until ARMs are available, these mechanical measures remain the primary response option to contain and recover oil and protect environmental resources. However, their effectiveness can be challenged by logistical and environmental factors such as the type of oil, the size of the spill, environmental characteristics, available equipment and weather conditions. For example, booming could be less effective in responding to very large spills in a remote, open marine environment because deploying the boom is likely to be slower than the spread of oil. Active weather can cause oil to spread further and faster, as well as hinder the ability of response boats to tow the equipment. Case studies of large oil spills in the open marine environment, such as the Deep Water Horizon spill in 2010 in the United States, show the limitations of mechanical measures to recover or treat oil.Footnote 1

To minimize the potential effects of an oil spill, Canada is considering how best to be equipped with a range of tools to respond in the most effective way to protect our environment, human health, and communities.

Alternative Response Measures Being Considered

ARMs is a general reference to a collection of response tools and techniques being considered for use within Canada. They would be complementary to conventional mechanical containment and recovery techniques, and are already integrated into the response regimes in many countries such as the United StatesFootnote 2, United KingdomFootnote 3, AustraliaFootnote 4, and Norway.Footnote 5

Over 50 years of scientific research, conducted internationally and by our own Canadian researchers, and the use of ARMs during major international spills has provided valuable evidence related to the risks and benefits of their use under actual spill conditions. This evidence base was further strengthened through Canada's investments in the Multi-Partner Research Initiative (MPRI)Footnote 6. Collectively, this wealth of knowledge and experience provides an important foundation for understanding and including ARMs as additional tools in Canada's spill response regime, including knowing how to use ARMs and manage the associated risks.

ARMs have proven to be effective tools for cleaning up oil spills and can lead to better environmental outcomes, such as:

  • Quickly diluting spilled oil to very low concentrations, and enhancing the natural biodegradation of the spilled oil,
  • Helping direct the oil from sensitive species and ecosystems, as well as areas that are more challenging to clean, such as shorelines, or
  • Improving the efficiency of response operations, such as in relation to waste management, to enable greater recovery of oil and protection of the environment.

ARMs continue to be developed and strengthened through innovation and as science evolves. At this time, four classes of ARMs are being considered for potential use in Canada but as innovation occurs, Canada will look at new response measure techniques, including mechanical ones, as they may improve the environmental protection in cases of oil spills.

Spill-Treating Agents

Spill-Treating Agents (STAs) include many types of products that change the fate and behaviour of spilled oil, or enhance natural processes acting on the oil in the environment. For example:

  • Dispersants are used to treat oil slicks on water to break the oil into small droplets that quickly disperse into the water column. This dilutes the oil to very low concentrations and promotes the natural degradation of the oil by bacteria. Dispersants may be used to treat spilled oil over large areas relatively quickly, including in remote locations, and under a greater range of environmental conditions;
  • Surface washing agents enhance removal of heavy, persistent oil from shoreline surfaces to help with mechanical recovery;
  • Herders are applied to the outer edge of an oil slick to contract or shrink the slick area. This makes the oil easier to recover or burn off the surface of the water (see following description of in situ burning); and
  • Bioremediation agents help promote the natural breakdown of oil stranded in marshes and on beaches, as well as inland areas.

Based on scientific research and experience in other countries, the effectiveness of STAs depend on many common factors such as: the type of water body, the type of oil spilled, waves, temperature, and changes to the spilled oil over time due to weathering.

What sets this technique apart from other types of ARMs is that dispersants can be applied over large areas relatively quickly, including in remote locations, and under a greater range of environmental conditions than other response measures. This provides the potential to treat large surface slicks before the oil reaches sensitive habitats, shorelines and other valuable resources. However, dispersant use can result in higher, short-term exposure of resources near where the oil is being dispersed. For this reason, dispersants are only suitable in open areas where there are sufficient volumes and movements of water to allow the oil droplets to disperse and dilute.

Overall, STAs can change the behaviour of the oil, influencing where it goes and what parts of the environment are impacted. Given this effect on the movement of the oil, and the introduction of additional substances into the environment, this ARM would need careful consideration and authorization to ensure that it is used appropriately to minimize environmental impacts.


In an oil spill response, typical skimming operations to recover oil will collect a mixture of oil and water from the environment. Decanting is the process of separating the water from that mixture, and returning the relatively clean water, which can contain some residual amounts of oil, back to the spill area. Returning this cleaner water at the spill site reduces the amount of wastewater needing to be stored onboard skimming vessels and then be transported for treatment and disposal, where such vessels have limited storage capacity. This process allows skimming operations to remain active within the spill area for longer and support the recovery of more oil. Access to this technique would be especially beneficial in remote locations where the ability to store and treat waste is limited.

Although the discharged water is much cleaner than the oil-water mixture that is recovered from the spill area, it may still contain some oil components, and for this reason, an authorization would be required for decanting.

In-Situ Burning

In-situ burning (ISB) is the removal of spilled oil by igniting and burning it under controlled conditions. ISB operations typically use fire-resistant booms to collect, isolate, and concentrate the oil to enable a sustained burn. Research and the experience from their use in other countries shows that ISB can be highly effective at removing large amounts of oil from the spill area with the resulting smoke plume quickly dissipating.

ISB reduces the need for much of the handling, storage, treatment and disposal of the oil, creating efficiencies over oil recovery. It can be an important technique in remote locations where infrastructure and response resources are scarce or locations where mechanical techniques cannot be used safely (e.g. in broken ice or in marshes).

Oil on water can be difficult to ignite, and the combustion difficult to maintain. As a result, for ISB to function, it would need:

  • the oil to be concentrated in thick layers,
  • an ignition source, and
  • potentially a starter product, particularly for difficult oils such as heavy oils that have been weathered for a long time.

The use of starter products or accelerants, the fire hazard itself, and the resulting smoke plume is why this technique would require authorization prior to use.

Oil Translocation

Oil translocation is the process of moving oil or oiled material (e.g. pebble, sand) on the shoreline to the water to make it easier to recover or to enhance processes that naturally break down the oil. For example, shoreline flushing uses a stream of water to flush oil into a boomed area in the water, where it is then more easily recovered.

Oil translocation techniques may be especially valuable in remote areas where access to the contaminated site may be challenging, and waste storage and treatment facilities are limited.

Similar to some STAs, the use of oil translocation can result in higher short-term impacts to local organisms while the oil is mobile and before it is recovered or degraded. Before authorization, it is essential that careful consideration be given to where and which conditions would be appropriate for the use of this technique.

Proposed Legislative Safeguards

Canada has in place a strong legislative framework to prevent oil spills and protect the environment.Footnote 7 Some of this legislation can also inadvertently prevent the use of some oil spill response tools, such as ARMs. As a result, the Government of Canada is considering legislative amendments to enable the careful and appropriate use of ARMs to respond to oil spills across the petroleum supply chain, including from marine shipping, offshore exploration and production operations, and for federally-regulated pipeline spills.

The recovery and proper disposal of spilled oil is the primary objective following a spill to mitigate the most severe impacts of the oil on the environment and human health. However, recovery of the oil may not be possible, where supporting natural processes may lead to better protection outcomes. ARMs techniques can be combined with conventional mechanical methods to increase the amount of oil recovered and enhance cleanup operations. By expanding the range of tools available within Canada's oil spill response regime, in addition to our current containment and recovery techniques, responders would be able to provide the best possible response to protect the environment and valuable resources. All new response techniques being considered for use would undergo thorough research and testing to ensure their efficacy and safety.

However, the improper or inappropriate use of ARMs can introduce their own risks and are not appropriate for every spill circumstance. As a result, their use would need to be governed by a broader legal framework that includes multiple safeguards to ensure protection of the environment and human health.

The legislative safeguards being considered include:

Enable the Authorization of ARMs for Use During an Oil Spill

The federal government is considering legislative amendments to enable the responsible government department or agency within designated sectors to authorize the use of an ARM during an oil spill response. ARMs available for authorization would be identified in regulations, and the designated sectors would include marine shipping, offshore exploration and production operations, and federally-regulated pipeline:

  • The Canadian Coast Guard as the lead federal response agency for spills from ships.
  • The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board or the Canada Energy Regulator as the lead agency for spills from offshore exploration and production operations.
  • The Canada Energy Regulator as the lead agency for spills from federally-regulated pipelines.
  • For oil spills from any other source where a responsible federal government department or agency is not specified, Environment and Climate Change Canada would authorize the use of ARMs in support of the responding agency.

This approach recognizes the expertise of each responsible authority, and that they are best placed to identify the appropriate use of ARMs for spills involving their sector.

Regulation of the Types of ARMs that May Be Used in Canada and Their Use

The Government of Canada is considering amending legislation to enable national regulations centralized under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act 1999, to specify the types of ARMs that may be authorized for use in Canada to address an oil spill.Footnote 8 For example, potential regulations would ensure that only those ARMs that have undergone rigorous scientific research and evaluation to understand their properties, benefits, limitations, and risks, and that have been demonstrated to be effective in providing a beneficial role for oil spill response will be considered for use. This evaluation will leverage decades of knowledge and experience that has and continues to be built internationally and domestically on the use of ARMs. Canada would start with the four classes of ARMs detailed above, and the regulations could be amended over time to take advantage of emerging and innovative technologies.

In addition to specifying the types of ARMs that may be used in Canada, the potential legislative amendments would enable the federal government to place conditions or restrictions through regulation that would need to be met for the use of an ARM. For example, water salinity may influence the effectiveness of an ARM, and the need for a general condition to guide or limit its use to certain environments or circumstances.

Requirement to First Determine the Net Environmental Benefit of an ARM

Given varying spill conditions and that some ARMs may be more appropriate in certain circumstances, the national framework being considered would include as its cornerstone that before an ARM could be authorized, it must be determined that its use will likely result in an overall or 'net' environmental benefit when compared to not using that ARM. Similar processes for decision-making are found in other nations, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Norway, and Canada will put in place a decision-making approach that ensures environmental safeguards that meet or exceed those of other countries.

Determination of the net environmental benefit would involve a comparison of the advantages, disadvantages, and trade-offs for using an ARM, as well as any risk mitigation strategies. Such a comparison would be based on the best available information for the spill including the type, volume and location of the spilled oil, weather conditions, environmental sensitivities, and potential socio-economic, cultural, and community impacts. For example, depending on incident specific circumstances, it may be preferable to use an ARM or ARMs to protect a shoreline from long-term impacts from the spilled oil, even if it means that there are short-term impacts on species in the water column or downwind (see Annex A for a summary of ARMs Benefits, Considerations, and Mitigation Options). The possible amendments would also enable the establishment of further requirements on how to determine net environmental benefit.

To support the determination of the net environmental benefit, the government is also considering being able to authorize the use of a small-scale test of an ARM to verify and test the efficacy of that ARM, given the specific spill conditions and type of oil spilled.

Liability and Compensation Clarified to Include ARMs

Liability and compensation for oil spills is based on the polluter pays principle, which holds the polluter liable for an oil spill and responsible for the associated response as well as clean-up costs and damages, such as property damage and economic losses (e.g. loss of revenue for businesses).

The Government of Canada is not proposing to change the liability for any damages caused by an oil spill. Rather, the amendments being considered would clarify that the existing liability and compensation regime includes ARMs within its scope.

Monitoring and Enforcement

The federal government or the responsible Regulatory Authority currently inspects and monitors compliance with regulations and standards on an ongoing basis and takes enforcement action when there is non-compliance. As with any oil spill response operation, the appropriate lead agency would monitor the use of ARMs throughout the response operation.

The amendments being considered would be clear that non-compliance with any legislative or regulatory requirements, including conditions, regarding ARMs would be a violation, and enable appropriate federal departments or regulators to take enforcement action.


Canada has robust response regimes with strong track records in preventing oil spills. However, the risk cannot be eliminated and Canada is considering how best to be prepared to respond to oil spills as effectively as possible. This includes increasing access for responders to use a range of internationally-recognized oil spill response tools and techniques, such as ARMs. Use would be guided by careful assessment of the advantages, disadvantages and trade-offs of using an ARM in determining whether their use will likely result in a net environmental benefit.

The Government of Canada is contemplating legislative changes to establish a national framework to enable the careful and appropriate use of ARMs. The amendments being considered would enable a series of legal safeguards to be put in place, in addition to existing environmental protections and the current robust oil spill response systems.

The potential legislative amendments, if approved by Parliament, would be accompanied by supporting regulations and program activities, as well as additional scientific research and guidelines. Additional opportunities to provide feedback on regime elements would be available through the development of such regulations and program activities.

If you have any comments on the proposed legislative amendments, these may be sent to the following email address:

Annex A: Summary of Arms Benefits, Considerations and Risk Mitigation Strategies

Potential Alternative Response Measures Benefits Considerations Risk Mitigation Strategies
Spill Treating Agents (with a focus on dispersants)
  • Enhances removal of oil from the water surface to prevent oil from reaching shorelines and oiling surfaces
  • Quickly dilutes oil to very low concentrations
  • Enhances natural biodegradation
  • Large spills can be treated by aerial deployment to cover large areas rapidly, in remote locations and under a broad range of environmental conditions
  • Sub-surface releases can be treated at source in an extended range of conditions, including nighttime, poor visibility and rough seas
  • Can support responder health and safety in accessing the spill site by suppressing emissions of volatiles.
  • Increased exposure of oil to organisms in the water column
  • Only suitable for certain types of oil, under certain conditions
  • Limited time window for effective use
  • Use only as part of an environmental protection strategy after careful assessment of the benefits and consequences to species and habitats
  • Apply only in locations that are able to provide adequate dilution
  • Monitor effectiveness of the dispersant to disperse the oil slick (on water surface) or plume (in water column)
  • Reduces operational constraints associated with storage, handling and treatment of water separated from recovered oil
  • Increases response efficiency to extend time spent recovering oil, especially in locations with limited infrastructure and response resources
  • May be used effectively with most oil products
  • Some residual oil is returned with the water
  • Monitoring of oil content in the water discharge
  • Discharge the water within the zone already impacted by the oil spill
In-situ Burning
  • Rapidly removes large volumes of oil from the water surface
  • Reduces the need for storage, handling, and treatment of recovered oil
  • Effective on virtually all floating combustible oil products under controlled conditions
  • May be deployed in conditions where other options are unsuitable, such as marshes, inland areas, and in broken ice
  • Short-term, localized reduction of air quality and thermal impacts
  • Burn residue could be difficult to recover
  • Requires a way to contain and concentrate the oil, either physically or chemically, such as fire-proof boom, herders, or channels within ice
  • Requires calm environmental conditions
  • Addition of an accelerant may be necessary for ignition
  • Wildlife may become trapped within the burn zone
  • Potential for loss of control causing secondary fires
  • Careful selection of burn site and conditions for both operations and safety
  • Sufficient setbacks from inhabited areas and wildlife, including the anticipated smoke plume
  • Strong controls within the operational area
  • Monitoring of air quality and presence of wildlife
Oil Translocation
  • An effective means to reduce the quantity of oil stranded on shorelines and structures
  • Oil may be recovered, or enhance natural biodegradation
  • Reduces long-term exposure of shoreline species to stranded oil
  • Physical intrusion to move soiled materials could impact shoreline ecosystems
  • Short-term, localized increase in exposure to oil along the shoreline and nearshore zone
  • Selection of the appropriate translocation technique suitable to the characteristics of the shoreline region
  • Assessment of the benefits of removing oiled materials against natural degradation
  • Monitoring of the effectiveness of the applied translocation technique