Top of the world challenge for Arctic cleanup

As oil drilling experts on Tuesday considered the Arctic’s myriad challenges, from icebergs to whaling routes, spill cleanup remained the top concern.

Speakers at the Arctic Technology Conference, hosted at the George R. Brown Convention Center by organizers of Houston’s Offshore Technology Conference, said frigid conditions at the end of the earth present unique challenges for oil spill cleanups and safety regulations.

“We’re all in the Arctic together,” said Mark Fesmire, Alaska regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. “Any failure, by any party in the Arctic, will result in an inability to develop this resource for the benefit of the nation, Alaska and the operator.”

While the remote environment makes it difficult for companies to respond to a disaster, it also presents opportunities for spill solutions, speakers said.

For example, oil spilled in icy areas can be easier to clean up, particularly it can rise and pool on a contained surface, said Steve Potter, principal consultant for SL Ross. Ice can also help block the spread of oil, he said.

At that point, the best solution for cleanup of a large spill would likely be similar to the best options in the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere, Potter said.

Overall, burning oil on the surface or using chemical dispersants to break up plumes of oil into tiny droplets will do the most to protect marine environments in the Arctic region or elsewhere, speakers said.

Setting oil ablaze can remove up to 90 percent of it from the surface, taking it out of the marine environment before it can spread more and potentially cause other damage in water or on shores, Potter said.

Dispersants, on the other hand, can help when oil has spread over too large of an area to be efficiently contained and burned, he said.

Tim Nedwed, a senior engineering associate for Exxon Mobil, who analyzed oil spill response for the company, acknowledged critics’ concerns about chemicals used in them but said dispersants are similar to household cleaners. He cited a story that compared Palmolive dish soap, Mr. Clean and other products with the most commonly stocked dispersant in North America and showed the dispersant was as much as 27 times less toxic to a fish species that was analyzed.

Chemical dispersants also work to dramatically reduce the toxicity of oil left to disperse and degrade on its own, Nedwed said.

Although methods of skimming oil or mechanically recovering it are often preferred, they can be the slowest and most difficult methods to deploy. Employing those tools for a large spill could involve substantial delays that would promote environmental damage, while using dispersants spread by an aircraft could cut down those effects in hours, he said.

Other challenges of spill response in Arctic drilling were related to the great distances involved with such operations.

Shell’s Alaska drilling operations, which have been burdened with delays and have involved more than $4 billion over six years before even striking oil, are more than 1,000 miles from the nearest deep-water port.

That requires the company to fund and maintain a fleet of spill-response vessels in the region, with more than 200 workers out of a 2,000-person operation solely present for that purpose, said Norman Custard, emergency response superintendent for Shell Exploration and Production.

An operation in the Gulf of Mexico would benefit from the pooled emergency response capabilities of other companies working at hundreds of offshore rigs, he said.

Shell has also worked to avoid disrupting local populations and their traditions, moving ships out of the way when whaling activities occur near its operations, Custard said.

Regardless of companies’ efforts to address challenges, particularly related to spills, some scenarios are just going to be bad, Nedwed said.