Report: US ill prepared to tackle Arctic oil spills

WASHINGTON — The United States is ill prepared to tackle oil spills in the Arctic, whether from drilling or vessels traveling through newly passable waterways once clogged with ice, according to a National Research Council report released Wednesday.

Extreme weather conditions and sparse infrastructure in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas — more than 1,000 miles from the nearest deep-water port — would complicate any broad emergency response. There, freezing ice can trap pockets of oil, locking it beyond the reach of traditional cleanup equipment and preventing it from naturally breaking down over time.

“The lack of infrastructure in the Arctic would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill,” the scientists said in a 198-page report requested by the American Petroleum Institute, the Coast Guard, the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling, and five other entities. “It is unlikely that responders could quickly react to an oil spill unless there were improved port and air access, stronger supply chains and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies and personnel.”

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The report offers a road map and 13 recommendations for what federal agencies, oil industry and other stakeholders need to do to boost their ability to tackle a fuel or oil spill at the top of the globe, as retreating sea ice spurs new energy development and ship traffic in the remote region.

A chief recommendation: More research across the board, from meteorological studies to investigations of how oil spill cleanup methods would work in the Arctic.

The NRC insisted the United States needs “a comprehensive, collaborative, long-term Arctic oil spill research and development program.”

The council encouraged controlled releases of oil in the Arctic — a practice generally barred under U.S. environmental laws — to evaluate new response strategies. Although the federal government and oil industry are conducting lab studies that attempt to replicate Arctic conditions, the NRC suggests there is no substitute for the real thing and said the studies could be done without measurable environmental harm.

Arctic difficulties

Most information on responding to oil spills has been developed in temperate conditions, such as the Gulf of Mexico, so it may not translate to the Arctic, where cold water and sea ice may limit the amount of oil that naturallydisperses and evaporates.

Because no response methods are completely effective or risk free, the industry and government need a broad “oil spill response toolbox”, the NRC said. Pre-tested and pre-positioned equipment — as well as plans for using it — would be critical to making sure they can be swiftly applied in an oil spill, the group said.

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Options include chemical dispersants that can break down oil, either applied at the surface or near a wellhead, but the researchers said more work is needed to understand their effectiveness and long-term effects in the Arctic. And while burning thick patches of floating oil is a viable spill response countermeasure in the Arctic — potentially aided by ice that helps pool and collect the crude — even that is not perfect. When ice is openly drifting, the NRC warns, “oil spills can rapidly spread too thinly to ignite.”

Using booms, vessels and skimmers to concentrate thin, rapidly spreading oil slicks also may be difficult in the region, where there are few if any approved disposal sites for the contaminated equipment, sparse port facilities for the vessels and limited airlift capabilities. The NRC says this kind of mechanical recovery is probably best for small, contained spills in pack ice, but it would probably be too inefficient for a large offshore spill in the U.S. Arctic.

Coast Guard ships

The group also suggests the U.S. Coast Guard’s relatively small presence in the U.S. Arctic is not sufficient. The NRC says the Coast Guard needs ice-breaking capability, more vessels for responding to emergency situations, and eventually aircraft and helicopter support facilities that can work year-round.

Other resources also are needed, including:

  • equipment to detect, monitor and model the flow of oil on and under ice.
  • real-time monitoring of vessel traffic in the U.S. Arctic in the Bering Strait. Their absence would force the U.S. to rely on foreign and private receivers that have significant blind spots.

One potentially tricky political recommendation is for the Coast Guard to expand an existing bilateral agreement with Russia to allow joint Arctic spill exercises.

‘Sobering look’

Chris Krenz, a Juneau-based senior scientist with the conservation group Oceana, said the report offers “a sobering look at our lack of preparedness.”

“Today’s report confirms that we are woefully unprepared for a disaster like the Exxon Valdez or the Deepwater Horizon in the U.S. Arctic,” Krenz said, suggesting that the United States should reconsider offshore drilling in the region.

But oil industry representatives said the report rightly calls for more research and resources to combat spills in the region.

American Petroleum Institute spokesman Carlton Carroll said the group was “encouraged by the report’s emphasis on the need for a full toolbox of spill response technologies.”

The report was the product of a 14-member committee of the National Research Council, organized by the National Academy of Sciences, with representatives drawn from academia, the oil industry and Alaska.

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