U.S. Not Ready for Oil Spill in Arctic Waters

Teams of scientists set up equipment on sea ice not far from the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy in the Chukchi Sea on July 4, 2010, where they spent the day collecting data. (Photo by Kathryn Hansen / NASA)


WASHINGTON, DC, April 23, 2014 (ENS) – The warming climate is melting sea ice, opening U.S. Arctic waters to shipping and oil and gas development, but the National Research Council warned today that U.S. personnel, equipment, transportation, communication, navigation, and safety resources are not adequate for an Arctic oil spill response.

In a new report released today, “Responding to Oil Spills in the US Arctic Marine Environment” the National Research Council calls this absence of infrastructure a “significant liability” in the event of a large oil spill.

The Arctic poses challenges to oil spill response, such as extreme weather and environmental settings, limited operations and communications infrastructure, a vast geographic area, and vulnerable species, ecosystems, and cultures.

“There is a need to validate current and emerging oil spill response technologies under these real-world conditions,” the report finds.

Professor Martha Grabowski, chair of the Committee on Responding to Oil Spills in Arctic Environments (Photo courtesy National Transportation Safety Board)

The Committee on Responding to Oil Spills in Arctic Environments that wrote the report is chaired by Professor Martha Grabowski, Business Administration Department, LeMoyne College, and includes scientists from the United States, Norway, England and Australia, as well as Thomas Coolbaugh, an associate of ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co.”

The committee recommends that “carefully controlled field experiments that release oil in the U.S. Arctic be conducted as part of a long-term, collaborative Arctic oil spill research and development program that spans local, state, and federal levels.

It suggests that positioning response equipment such as aerial in situ burn and dispersant capabilities in the region before a spill occurs would provide immediate access to rapid response options.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s presence and performance capacity in the Arctic should be enhanced, the report recommends. The Coast Guard should work with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to develop an oil spill training program for local communities and trained response teams in local villages.

They also should integrate local and traditional knowledge of ice and ocean conditions and marine life to enhance oil spill response, the report says.

Map showing the area studied by the committee (Photo courtesy National Research Council)

Given the nearness of U.S. Arctic waters to international territories, communications between command centers, coordinated planning, trans-boundary movement of people and equipment, and identification of translators, should be addressed before an actual spill, the report says.

While formal contingency planning and exercises with Canada have been established, the U.S. Coast Guard should expand its bilateral agreement with Russia to include Arctic spill scenarios and conduct regularly scheduled exercises to establish joint response plans, the report recommends.

“High-quality nautical charting is essential for marine traffic purposes and oil spill response in the Arctic. However, shoreline topographic and hydrographic data are mostly obsolete, with limited tide, current, and water level data and very little ability to get accurate positioning and elevation,” the report warns.

“Vessel traffic is not actively managed in the Bering Strait or in the U.S. Arctic, nor is there a comprehensive system for real-time traffic monitoring,” states the report. “The lack of a U.S. vessel traffic monitoring system for the Arctic creates significant vulnerability for U.S. Arctic missions, including oil spill response, and creates undue reliance on private industry and foreign national systems.”

“Private AIS [Automatic Identification System] receivers are used to track vessels in the Bering Strait and along a large part of Alaska coastal areas, but there are significant gaps in coverage. Consequently, there are numerous regional ‘blind spots’ where an early indication of elevated risks may not be apparent to officials on shore,” warns the committee.

Teams of scientists set up equipment on sea ice not far from the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy in the Chukchi Sea on July 4, 2010, where they spent the day collecting data. (Photo by Kathryn Hansen / NASA)

The committee also cautions that the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund “may prove insufficient to cover the sociological as well as economic damages of an affected community,” adding that a structure other than the National Contingency Plan may be needed to deal with broader social impacts resulting from a significant oil spill.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, the American Petroleum Institute, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Marine Mammal Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oil Spill Recovery Institute, and the National Academy of Sciences.

Greenpeace U.S. Arctic Campaigner John Deans commented, “This proves yet again that Arctic drilling is far too risky. The only way to prevent a spill is not to drill in the first place.”

“The inevitability of an oil spill given the industry’s drive for profit at all costs, the immense difficulties of responding to an Arctic spill and the devastating impact a spill will have on the region’s residents, wildlife and ecosystem should be enough to prevent this lunacy,” said Deans.

“Some of the country’s preeminent scientists unequivocally state in this report that ‘There are no response methods that are completely effective or risk free.’ We hope this will further push the oil industry to ‘unequivocally’ leave the Arctic alone, and the Obama administration to permanently protect this precious part of our country.”

drill ship
The drill ship Noble Discoverer in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, 2012 (Photo courtesy Royal Dutch Shell)

“Amazingly, Shell seems determined to attempt another assault on the Arctic, even after the catastrophic bungling of its 2012 foray. There is no clearer evidence that oil companies are not prepared enough, are cutting corners, and according to a recent U.S. Coast Guard Report, are committing multiple violations of the law in order to get to deep sea black gold, than Shell’s Alaskan debacle.”

In 2012, Royal Dutch Shell started drilling the first wells in the Alaskan Arctic in nearly two decades in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Shell’s goal for the summer drilling season was to confirm a major discovery of oil in commercially-viable quantities in the Alaskan Arctic Ocean.

Shell was not able to achieve its goal and did not complete any exploration wells. The company was unable to obtain certification of its containment vessel, and both of Shell’s drilling rigs experienced marine transport problems, including the grounding of the Kulluk off Alaska’s Kodiak Island during a towing operation.

A subsequent federal government review of Shell’s 2012 operations concluded that before it is allowed to approach Arctic drilling again, the company must submit to the Interior Department a comprehensive, integrated plan describing every phase of its operation from preparations through demobilization. Shell did no drilling in U.S. Arctic waters last year.

“As a report sponsor, the American Petroleum Institute and its members must heed this grave warning. Of course, much of this is not new,” said Deans. “Everyone from the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Government’s Geological Survey, Lloyds of London and CEOs of giant oil companies agree there is no such thing as safe Arctic drilling.”

“Weeks after the 25th Anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil disaster, and days after the fourth anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, those environments remain forever altered and communities continue to struggle against oil company obfuscation. To allow the same thing to happen again in pursuit of bigger profits for the world’s largest corporations is insane,” Deans said.

Nearly five million people from around the world have signed the Greenpeace petition to protect the Arctic, calling on governments to create a global sanctuary around the North Pole, and to ban offshore drilling and destructive commercial activity in the fragile Arctic environment.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2014. All rights reserved.


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