Alaska’s Arctic Ocean is unprepared for a blowout like the Gulf of Mexico BP Deepwater Horizon Exploration Well Incident.

The catastrophic blowout of the BP Deepwater Horizon exploration well will likely have long-lasting, harmful impacts on the Gulf of Mexico's environment, despite the fact that it happened in a temperate region with substantial spill response infrastructure nearby. A month after the spill, the Department of the Interior ordered a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling and suspended proposed exploratory drilling in the Arctic for the 2010 summer season. However, a permit for drilling in the U.S. Arctic Ocean during the 2011 summer season is already under review. In addition, on December 1, 2010 the Department of the Interior announced an updated oil and gas leasing strategy for the 2012-2017 plan in which the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas will continue to be considered for potential leasing before 2017.

Oil and gas exploration drill sites are proposed up to 140 miles offshore in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. For much of the year the Chukchi Sea is dominated by moving packs of sea ice, extreme storms, darkness, and sub-zero temperatures. The fleeting Arctic summer is not much kinder with high temperatures in the 40s, gale-force winds, week-long storms, and heavy fog restricting visibility. Oil spill cleanup equipment to respond to a blowout is much further away than they are in more developed regions and docks large enough to manage cleanup vessels are hundreds of miles away.

The Challenges of Oil Spill Response in the U.S. Arctic Ocean:

  • Chukchi Sea exploration sites are located up to 140 miles from shore.
  • The possibility of a catastrophic blowout (like the recent BP Deepwater Horizon spill) occurring during exploration in the Beaufort or the Chukchi Sea has been illogically dismissed.
  • No technology has been proven to clean up oil in real-world, Arctic Ocean conditions.
    • This YouTube video shows a Beaufort Sea ice trial where one, relatively small chunk of ice disables some ocean containment boom.
  • Oil spill response assets in the Arctic Ocean are insufficient: 
    • Remote location;
    • Too few and undertrained spill responders;
    • Inadequate shoreside infrastructure to handle spill response equipment;
    • Outdated and vague maps that fail to identify high priority ecological areas for protection.

To learn more about these challenges and The Pew Charitable Trusts' recommendations to minimize oil spill risks and protect life in the Arctic, read our technical report, “Oil Spill Prevention and Response in the U.S. Arctic Ocean: Unexamined Risks, Unacceptable Consequences.”

Check out The Pew Charitable Trusts' efforts to reform offshore energy management, including precautionary standards prior to oil exploration and improved standards for oil spill response.

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.