As summarized by Environment Canada, a contingency plan "is a plan for action prepared in anticipation of an oil spill. Contingency plans are essential because they establish practical plans of action for all types of oil spills so that, when spills do occur, a quick response can minimize the damage. The first step in developing a plan is to learn as much about the area as possible. Regardless of the geography or the size of an area, contingency plans normally include:

  • identification of authority and a chain of command;
  • a list of persons and organizations that must be immediately informed of a spill;
  • an inventory of available trained spill personnel and spill response equipment;
  • a list of jobs that must be done (in order of priority);
  • a communication network to coordinate response;
  • probable oil movement patterns under different weather conditions; and
  • sensitivity maps and other technical data.

Planners need to know about:

  • important or sensitive physical and biological resources within or near the area, such as marshes, unusual flora (plant life) and wildlife resources such as fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds;
  • important habitat areas required by particular species for spawning, feeding or migration;
  • tides, currents and local climatic conditions, such as wind and severe weather patterns;
  • shoreline characteristics; and
  • proximity to roads, airports, trained response personnel, oil spill clean-up equipment, etc."


As summarized by International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Ltd (ITOPF), "there are two approaches for responding to marine oil spills at sea: the enhancement of natural dispersion of the oil by using dispersant chemicals, and containment and recovery of oil using booms and skimmers. Sorbent materials may be useful in the final stages of clean up as a polishing tool. (Once oil strands on shore, a shoreline clean-up will be necessary.) Despite continuing research, there has been little change in the fundamental technology for dealing with oil spills. Alternative techniques are constantly being sought and old techniques re-assessed. Two techniques currently receiving fresh attention are in-situ burning and the enhancement of the natural biodegradation of oil through the application of micro-organisms and/or nutrients."

Also, according to ITOPF: "Aerial reconnaissance is an essential element of effective response to marine oil spills. It is used for assessing the location and extent of oil contamination and verifying predictions of the movement and fate of oil slicks at sea. Aerial surveillance provides information facilitating deployment and control of operations at sea, the timely protection of sites along threatened coastlines and the preparation of resources for shoreline clean-up. Observation can be undertaken visually or by use of remote sensing systems.

Initial clean-up responses to a spill at sea are often based upon the use of dispersant chemicals or the containment and recovery of oil using booms and skimmers. Whilst these techniques can be of use in the right circumstances, there are many difficulties associated with employing them effectively. The type of oil and concerns over potential impacts of dispersed oil can preclude dispersant use. For example, they are not effective against many commonly transported oils which have a high viscosity, and soon become ineffective against lighter oils because natural weathering processes or the formation of water-in-oil emulsions greatly increases oil viscosity, often very quickly (a few hours to one to two days). The application of dispersant to treat large quantities of spilled oil also requires specialised equipment and extensive logistical support. Containment and recovery is limited by sea conditions and the relatively small oil encounter rate which the available systems can achieve.

Together, these factors usually mean that only a small fraction of a major spill can be dealt with at sea, and it is almost inevitable that oil will threaten coastal resources. ••• Protective strategies are seldom employed to the extent possible and it will usually be necessary to mount a shoreline response operation. Priorities for protection and clean-up will need to be agreed and care must be taken to ensure that the techniques selected do not do more damage than the oil alone.

The disposal of oil and debris may become a major problem both during and after a clean-up operation. Several disposal options are however available."

The U.S. EPA summarizes as follows: "Mechanical containment or recovery equipment includes a variety of booms, barriers, and skimmers, as well as natural and synthetic sorbent materials. (A sweep system is a combination skimmer and boom attached to a ship or a small boat.) Mechanical containment is used to capture and store the spilled oil until it can be disposed of properly. Chemical and biological methods can be used in conjunction with mechanical means for containing and cleaning up oil spills. Dispersants and gelling agents are most useful in helping to keep oil from reaching shorelines and other sensitive habitats. Biological agents have the potential to assist recovery in sensitive areas such as shorelines, marshes, and wetlands. Research into these technologies continues to improve oil spill cleanup. (Physical methods are used to clean up shorelines. Natural processes such as evaporation, oxidation, and biodegradation can start the cleanup process, but are generally too slow to provide adequate environmental recovery. Physical methods, such as wiping with sorbent materials, pressure washing, and raking and bulldozing can be used to assist these natural processes.) Scare tactics are used to protect birds and animals by keeping them away from oil spill areas. Devices such as propane scare-cans, floating dummies, and helium-filled balloons are often used, particularly to keep away birds."


Mechanical containment and recovery

Chemical and biological methods (alternative measures)

In situ burning: