Arctic Ocean - U.S.

Oil Spill Risks

The search for oil is pushing into ever more remote corners of the world—including the U.S. Arctic Ocean.

 Diminishing sea ice is increasing access to Arctic waters, potentially enabling industrial activities such as shipping and oil and gas development. But industrial development in U.S. Arctic waters brings a new set of challenges and a larger set of risks than in other oceans. In the Arctic, people and machinery will be working in some of the most remote and harshest conditions on the planet.

The track record of the oil and gas industry shows that despite safeguards, equipment fails, mistakes are made and accidents happen. British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico provides a vivid illustration of the risks of offshore oil and gas activity. The rig exploded on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers. Two days later, the rig sank, causing a disastrous spill that eventually spewed 205,000,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf before BP was able to plug the well three months later. If anything goes wrong in the Arctic, oil will spill into a highly sensitive marine environment. The combination of oil and ice could be disastrous to the ecosystem and nearly impossible to clean up.

Oil Spill Risks from Exploration and Development
Oil exploration and development brings with it the ever-present risk of an oil spill in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. High winds, coupled with human error present significant risks to the sensitive Arctic marine environment.

Oil in the Ecosystem
Oil and ice don’t mix. Oil spilled in broken sea ice is likely to pool in biologically rich ice leads and openings, negatively affecting marine life throughout the food chain.

Oil and Arctic Sea Ice: Spill Response Limitations
There is currently no technology that has been proven to clean up an oil spill in Arctic Ocean conditions.

Oil and Arctic Weather: Spill Response Gap
Certain weather conditions (e.g. high wind, fog, high waves) make oil spill cleanup impossible.


There is a lack of baseline knowledge about the Arctic Ocean and how offshore oil drilling could affect an ecosystem already stressed by climate change. Oceans North recommends that the following assessments be conducted in order to better prevent and respond to an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean.

Oil spills in the U.S. Arctic Ocean from oil and gas exploration and development as well as increased shipping are a major risk to the sensitive ecosystem and indigenous peoples who rely on the ocean’s health. Industrial activities such as oil and gas development should be deferred until a comprehensive, science-based plan is in place. As well, the following steps should be taken to better prepare and respond to spills:  

  1. Arctic oil spill risk assessment: An assessment should be done to (a) provide a comprehensive evaluation of the oil spill risks from oil and gas activity and shipping; and (b) identify the highest priority risk reduction measures that can be implemented to reduce oil spills.
  2. Assess Arctic oil spill response capacity: Evaluate the capacity of oil spill response systems, including dedicated equipment, vessels and personnel. Examine the capabilities and limits of available technologies to respond to potential spills identified through the Arctic oil spill risk assessment. Establish an ongoing testing and evaluation program to further refine available technologies and develop new technologies for offshore Arctic oil spill response.
  3. Conduct an Arctic oil spill response gap analysis: A “response gap” exists whenever environmental conditions exceed the operating limits of oil spill cleanup equipment. If a spill occurs during this time, it could not be contained or cleaned up. Conducting a response gap analysis would provide more information about the implications of harsh Arctic environmental conditions (temperature, wind, sea ice, visibility) on oil spill cleanup. The result of this analysis will characterize the frequency of occurrence of one or more environmental factors that would render oil spill cleanup possible, impaired or impossible. Additional oil spill prevention or mitigation measures can then be put into place.
  4. Ensure the process is transparent and scientifically rigorous: All meetings, reports, and work products should be available for public and stakeholder review and input. All research projects should be developed using peer-reviewed methodologies, and all results should also be peer reviewed. The process would benefit from the appointment of a regional public advisory body made up of Arctic stakeholders that could consult on spill prevention and response capacity.
  5. Reform the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act: Legislation should be amended to ensure that spill drills are conducted in the region of proposed exploration. Companies proposing exploration and development should also provide proof of regional access to the equipment necessary to respond to a catastrophic oil spill.

Media Contact

Christine Fletcher

Officer, Communications