New Report Finds Oversight Lacking for Oil Drilling in U.S. Arctic Ocean

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Darkness, extreme weather and shifting sea ice could delay efforts to stop an oil well blowout in the U.S. Arctic Ocean for six months or more, trapping spewed oil in ice for up to a decade according to a report released today by the Pew Environment Group.

The study, “Oil Spill Prevention and Response in the U.S. Arctic Ocean: Unexamined Risks, Unacceptable Consequences,” is the most comprehensive analysis yet on challenges to preventing and containing spills along the nation's northernmost coast.  The report comes in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and includes recommended reforms to close gaps in risk analysis, response planning, oversight and scientific research.

“The Gulf of Mexico catastrophe showed us the consequences of lax oversight and inadequate response capacity, even in temperate waters near population centers,” said Marilyn Heiman, director of Pew's U.S. Arctic Program. “Sites proposed for drilling in Alaska's Arctic Ocean are some of the most remote areas on earth, and the challenges of drilling are formidable. Until reforms ensure that oil companies can respond to significant spills in real-world conditions, all proposed oil and gas leasing, exploration and development in the U.S. Arctic should be delayed.”

(Listen to an audio recording of Marilyn Heiman disussing the report.)

A bill now before the U.S. Senate would strengthen review and oversight not just in the Arctic but in all U.S. coastal waters.

Pew's report, by Nuka Research and Planning Group, LLC, and Pearson Consulting, LLC, found that response plans not only fail to realistically account for the harsh climate and remote location, but they also make overly optimistic assumptions. For example, plans presume that 90 percent of the oil would be removed in an Arctic marine spill when less than 20 percent was actually recovered in the Gulf of Mexico and less than 8 percent in the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill.

View a video on the risks of drilling in the Arctic:

 

Using booms to contain ocean spills, then removing the oil and burning it or applying chemical dispersants can be challenging enough in temperate waters. Assumptions about how these techniques would work in extreme Arctic conditions are based on small-scale, controlled experiments or guesswork, since there have been no major Arctic offshore oil spills. Potential complications noted in the report include:

  • Ice, cold temperatures, and 10- to 30-foot seas can impede the deployment of boats and skimmers and tear containment booms. 
  • Low visibility and hurricane-strength wind can make finding and igniting oil slicks impossible. 
  • Aerial application of dispersants requires low wind and high visibility, neither of which is reliable in the highly changeable Arctic climate.

Simply getting equipment and trained personnel to an Arctic spill site would be a difficult task. The report cites the following obstacles:

  • A single road connects Prudhoe Bay, on Alaska's Beaufort Sea, to central Alaska, 415 miles south. Farther west, no roads link the Chukchi Sea coast to the rest of Alaska. The eight main villages in the region are not connected to each other or to the rest of Alaska by road.
  • The nearest major port (Unalaska, in the Aleutian Islands) is 1,300 nautical miles from Point Barrow, where the Beaufort and Chukchi seas meet. 
  • There are no Coast Guard vessels resident in the Beaufort or Chukchi Seas. The nearest U.S. Coast Guard Air Station is located 950 air miles away in Kodiak, Alaska.

The report also details a significant gap in scientific research. Computer models have not been developed to adequately predict how an oil spill in the U.S. Arctic Ocean would interact with highly variable sea ice. And little baseline science exists for measuring the effects of an oil spill on Arctic ecosystems and food webs that support walrus, polar bears and other marine mammals found nowhere else in the United States. Marine mammals and fish make up as much as 60 percent of the diet of the 8,000 Native Alaskans living in the region and form the basis of their culture.

About the report:

The 137-page technical report was commissioned by the Pew Environment Group and prepared by Nuka Research and Planning Group, LLC, and Pearson Consulting, LLC.  It was independently reviewed by scientists with expertise in oil spill recovery and response, northern oceanography and Arctic marine ecology.

About the policy recommendations: The policy reforms are the recommendations of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. Arctic Program.