Recommendations on Oil Spill Prevention, Response, and Safety in the U.S. Arctic Ocean
The search for oil is reaching into ever more remote corners of the world, including the U.S. Arctic Ocean. Diminishing sea ice is opening Arctic waters to increased industrial activities such as shipping and oil and gas development. Yet industrial development in these waters brings a new set of challenges and a larger set of risks than in other oceans because, in the Arctic, people and machinery will be working in some of the most remote and harshest conditions on the planet.
The Arctic Ocean is ice-covered for eight to nine months of the year, with almost complete darkness for nearly three of those months. Even during the summer when the ice pack has mostly receded, the Arctic still experiences high seas, wind, freezing temperatures, dense fog, and floating ice hazards. Major highways, airports, and ports that most Americans take for granted do not exist in the Arctic. The nearest U.S. Coast Guard air base is in Kodiak, AK, more than 950 air miles away. The nearest major port is in Dutch Harbor, AK, which is over 1,000 miles from the Arctic Ocean.
An oil spill would have a profoundly adverse impact on one of the world’s last relatively untouched marine ecosystems. The Arctic Ocean is home to bowhead, beluga, and gray whales; walruses; polar bears; and other magnificent marine mammals, as well as millions of migratory birds. In this land of ice and snow, indigenous communities have thrived for millennia with a traditional way of life that is interwoven with the region’s natural bounty. Current technology has not been proved to effectively clean up oil when mixed with ice or when trapped under ice.
In the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout, the United States and other Arctic countries began to examine whether regulatory standards were sufficient to prevent a similar disaster in the Arctic. In August 2012, the Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee concluded that there is a need to modernize U.S. regulations to include Arctic-specific standards to prevent spills, contain them, and respond to them quickly and effectively. And, in March 2013, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar released a formal review of Shell’s 2012 Alaska offshore oil and gas exploration program. The report concluded that the federal government must recognize and account for the unique challenges of this region. In June 2013, Interior began a public process to solicit input on improved Arctic technology and equipment standards with a goal of proposing new regulations by 2014.
To aid the United States in these efforts, this report and its appendixes offer guidelines for responsible hydrocarbon development in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. Pew is not opposed to offshore drilling, but a balance must be achieved between responsible energy development and protection of the environment. It is essential that appropriate standards be in place for safety and for oil spill prevention and response in this extreme, remote, and vulnerable ecosystem.
What Are Arctic Standards
Arctic OCS standards would provide consistent requirements on how to design, build, install, and operate equipment to safely explore and develop oil and gas resources and respond to accidents in the region using best Arctic science, technology, and practices. Arctic standards should account for the area’s remote location, lack of infrastructure, and unique operating conditions due to the severe and changing climate to ensure that oil spills are prevented and the capability exists to respond to a worst-case oil spill.
These are some of the changes that Pew recommends:
- Arctic offshore drilling operations into hydrocarbon-bearing zones should be limited to periods when the drilling rig and its associated spill response system are capable of working and cleaning up a spill in Arctic conditions. (FIGURE 5: Arctic seasonal operating limits)
- Vessels, drilling rigs, and facilities should be built to withstand maximum ice forces and sea states that may be encountered.
- Equipment needed to control a spill, such as relief rigs and well-control containment systems, should be designed for and located in Alaska’s Arctic so they can be readily deployed.
- Spill response equipment should be located in Alaska’s Arctic and be sufficiently robust to remove oil caught in ice-infested waters and trapped under ice.
- Redundant systems—including blowout preventers, double-walled pipelines, double-bottom tanks, and remotely operated controls—should be installed because equipment and logistical access is unavailable for large parts of the year due to harsh weather or ice cover.
Pew believes that decisions about whether, where, and how oil and gas exploration and production activities are conducted in the U.S. Arctic Ocean should be based on sound scientific information, thorough planning, the best available technology, and full involvement of the communities most affected. A balanced and careful approach to development must account for environmental protection and the social, cultural, and subsistence needs of Alaska communities.