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Spill Commission's Warnings about America's Arctic

Chuck Clusen

Posted January 12, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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The national oil spill commission report, released Tuesday, makes clear that the oil and gas industry is ill-equipped to handle oil spills and does not have the safety measures needed to prevent them in the first place.  The report also highlights the intense challenges the industry would face if an oil disaster occurred in the Arctic. 

In particular, the commission raised concerns about gaps in knowledge about the Arctic environment and the difficulty of mounting a major cleanup due to lack of ports, roads and air strips in the remote region.

I’ve outlined similar concerns extensively in past blogs, but as a refresher, here’s a rundown of some of those unique challenges to spill response in that region:

  • Frigid temperatures
  • Presence of sea ice
  • Gale-force winds
  • High and rough seas
  • Intense storms
  • Heavy fog
  • Protracted darkness 
  • No road system, essentially no port facilities, and few airports
  • The nearest Coast Guard Station is located in Kodiak Alaska 1,000 miles away.
  • The closest cache of clean-up equipment is in Seattle - 2,000 miles away.

To date no technology exists to clean up oil in sea ice conditions.  Further, the cold water breaks down oil much slower than the warm Gulf waters.  Since all exploration work has to be done in the summer when the ice cap has melted, an oil spill could likely not be cleaned up before the sea freezes over in the fall making clean up essentially impossible until the next summer.

And the potential for loss in the Arctic is great.  The waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are home to one-fifth of the world’s polar bears, as well as ice seals, migratory birds from all continents except Europe, endangered bowhead whales, beluga whales, walrus and other marine life.  Still the marine and coastal ecosystems of the Arctic are the least understood in the world.  Alaska Natives in the Arctic depend on the marine life of the ocean for survival and their ancient subsistence culture.  A major spill could be devastating to the marine life of these ecosystems and in turn to the Alaska Native peoples of the Arctic.

The oil industry has had difficulty cleaning up spilled oil in the temperate conditions of the Gulf of Mexico.  As the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation has noted, “containment and recovery at sea rarely results in the removal of more than a relatively small proportion of a large oil spill, at best only 10 – 15% and often considerably less.”  The U.S. Arctic Research Commission recently stated these kinds of concerns for the Arctic:

The Arctic is a venue with particular need for oil spill prevention and response.  Unique risks in the North include protracted darkness, cold, ice cover, and powerful storms, all of which complicate prevention and response efforts for spills in ice-covered waters.  Good scientific baseline information is lacking for living resources in the much of the region and the need exists to better understand both basic biological features, as well as the spatial habitat of flora and fauna that might be at risk for spills.

The oil industry does not address these limitations.  It has never conducted an offshore oil spill response drill in the Chukchi Sea to test its equipment and procedures.  Ice can clog skimmers, make vessel operations more challenging and can make it difficult to deploy equipment.  Oil spreads under ice making it more difficult to track and clean up.  Field exercises in the Beaufort Sea during 2000 showed that sea ice could shut down on-water recovery at very low concentrations.  Those exercises used some of the same equipment Shell lists in its plan.

We at NRDC feel there must be a concerted science program for at least seven years to help fill the data gaps.  Simply plotting oil spilled in various weather conditions as a way to deal with time frame gaps in research is wholly inadequate as the weather is known to change very rapidly.  Proven methods of oil spill response must be developed.  The Coast Guard needs to be on the scene—not 1,000 miles away—without proper ice-breaker ships.  Response equipment and personnel in adequate numbers must be located locally, not thousands of miles away in the Lower 48.  International standards for oil and gas activity must not only be developed and shared between all nations operating in the Circumpolar Arctic, but they must have real teeth and prove effective.  None of these things can be accomplished overnight.  The industry needs time to find and implement solutions to problems they haven’t even begun to investigate. And that’s why a 7-year moratorium in this region is the smart way to go. 

As has been pointed out in the past few days – we demand that other industries – including the nuclear and aviation industries – take every precautionary measure they can to ensure the greatest possible safety.  Meanwhile we’ve let the oil & gas industry roll the dice for far too long.  It’s time for science and safety to have a starring role in their work.  Any less is a gamble we’re sure to lose.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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