Back to top

Ecological Risk Assessment (ERA) Workshops

Smoke billows from a controlled in situ burn.
In situ burning was employed extensively during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in 2010.

During oil spill responses, arguments about response strategies are common and can slow decision-making. Two response options—chemical dispersants and in situ burning—are especially contentious. When decisions can't be made quickly enough, "windows of opportunity" can close for some response options (e.g., the oil emulsifies and can't be skimmed or burned, the sea state changes so that equipment can't be used).

To encourage discussion and consensus before a spill happens, the U.S. Coast Guard has sponsored a series of Consensus Ecological Risk Assessment (ERA, or C-ERA) Workshops, beginning with localized workshops in the 1990s. In addition, the National Park Service sponsored a C-ERA workshop in St. Croix in 2008. NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) has served as a key co-facilitator of those workshops.

During ERA Workshops, participants learn and practice a simplified risk assessment method that people can apply without extensive training. This ERA method allows participants to efficiently compare response options that have ecological effects.

After first working in small groups, workshop participants then convene together with the intent of developing a consensus view of the potential ecological risk of the response options under consideration. By coming to consensus in the non-emergency setting of an ERA Workshop, they hope to increase efficiency of future spill responses.

The ERA method relies on regional data and is heavily dependent on the expert opinion of participants. Typically, participants include resource trustees and stakeholders from local, state, and federal agencies and from non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The goal is to develop a risk-ranking matrix from the consensus opinion of the participants. Workshop participants rank risk to a natural resource (e.g., nesting sea turtles) from a given response option by estimating (a) the percentage of the resource affected (e.g., small to large), and (b) the time needed for the population to recover (e.g., less than a year to greater than 10 years). They then compare response options in terms of the potential risks they pose to natural resources. The participants typically analyze the following response options:

  • No response;
  • Open-water mechanical cleanup (skimmers);
  • In situ burning;
  • Open-water dispersant application;
  • Mechanical shoreline cleanup.

By basing assessment on a risk matrix and local information, each ERA Workshop enables relatively quick, systematic comparison of response options that have ecological effects. The ERA process makes it possible for workshop participants to develop a consensus interpretation of risk to local resources. The ERA goal is that this discussion, intuition-building, and consensus-building before a spill happens can promote future responses that lead to the fullest possible recovery.

OR&R's ERA Activities

NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration has co-facilitated 17 ERA Workshops (1996-2008), training over 400 participants. Offered below are two posters outlining OR&R's ERA work:

ERA Workshop Publications

Some ERA workshop reports can be found on the website of Sponson Group, including the guidebook, "Developing Consensus Ecological Risk Assessments: Environmental Protection in Oil Spill Response Planning." View the ERA Project Reports.

A number of authors have published papers about ERA (or C-ERA) workshops in the Proceedings of the International Oil Spill Conference (IOSC). You can search the Proceedings, using the search term "ecological risk assessment."  

Questions: Contact us with your questions, comments, or suggestions for ERA Workshops.

Last updated Thursday, December 30, 2021 11:04pm PST