In the best of conditions, recovering spilled oil is difficult. A response effort is considered successful if 20 percent of the spilled oil is recovered.

 Remote Arctic conditions and severe weather may present spill responders with total darkness, extreme storms, sub-zero temperatures and shifting ice. There may be days or even weeks when weather prevents any cleanup efforts. In addition to these hazardous operating conditions, the cold and icy Arctic environment hampers the best technology available for spill response. If oil is spilled into the Arctic Ocean, recovering it will be a difficult, if not impossible, task.

Oil in Ice

Sea ice is a dynamic and unpredictable environment. Rapid climate change makes it even more unpredictable, altering the timing and extent of the ice.

The presence of sea ice greatly complicates the fate of spilled oil. Oil can be spilled underneath ice, where it may spread without detection. Oil may freeze into ice and travel with the ice floes until it melts out in the spring, possibly hundreds of miles from where it spilled.

Cold weather slows natural weathering and evaporation of oil, and oil trapped into ice will not weather at all. Oil spilled into broken ice may pool in leads or polynyas, concentrating in the most biologically important zones.

Arctic Ocean Spill Response Techniques and Challenges

As BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico has shown, a major spill cleanup is a massive human undertaking involving a large number of boats, airplanes, equipment and trained personnel. The first three weeks after the April 20, 2010 spill in the Gulf required 13,000 people, 520 vessels, 1.4 million feet of boom and a half million barrels of dispersants.  If a spill were to happen in the Chukchi, nearly all the responders would be coming from hundreds or thousands of miles away and would need food, shelter, amenities and equipment. Each hour it takes for them to arrive translates into a diminished response. See our recommendation for an Arctic Oil Spill Response Gap Analysis.

The Arctic environment poses special challenges to oil spill response technologies and techniques. In most cases the Arctic operating environment reduces the effectiveness of oil spill control and recovery methods and equipment. While the oil industry and spill responders continue to research cleanup methods in Arctic waters, we have virtually no real-world experience with such incidents. Most of the research to date has been in the laboratory or in small-scale trials where there are far fewer variables than in the Arctic offshore environment.

Oil spill response methods are generally divided into three main categories:

  1. Mechanical recovery: Oil is contained in an area using boom or natural containment and removed using skimmers and pumps.
  2. Non-mechanical recovery: Use of chemical dispersantsburning, or bioremediation, where natural processes degrade or disperse an oil slick.
  3. Manual recovery: Oil is removed using simple hand tools and pails, shovels or nets.

Most oil exploration, production, storage and transportation operations in Arctic waters rely on a combination of mechanical recovery and two non-mechanical techniques – in-situ burning and dispersant application – to clean up or treat spilled oil.

All three types of oil cleanup technologies require spill tracking to identify the location, spread and condition of the oil in order to apply the appropriate tactics. All three cleanup methods also require logistical support to transport equipment and trained personnel to the spill site, deploy and operate equipment, and decontaminate machinery. Responders must be able to safely access the spill site in order to deploy equipment, a major challenge in remote areas.

With all three spill cleanup methods, time is critical. As soon as oil is spilled to water, it begins to spread, evaporate and emulsify. As time passes, it generally becomes more difficult to track, contain, and recover or treat spilled oil.

Arctic Oil Spill Report

Oil Spill Prevention and Response in the U.S. Arctic Ocean: Unexamined Risks, Unacceptable Consequences

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.