The search for oil is reaching into ever more remote corners of the world, including the U.S. Arctic Ocean. Industrial development in these waters brings a new set of challenges and a larger set of risks than in other oceans because people and equipment must work in some of the harshest and most remote 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.
In the event of an oil spill or other incident, inadequate infrastructure and punishing weather could seriously delay the arrival of vessels, equipment, people, or other help. Major highways, airports, and ports, which most Americans take for granted, do not exist in the Arctic. Only two airports (Barrow and Deadhorse) can handle cargo planes, and those airports are connected to small road and port systems capable of servicing a tiny fraction of the Arctic coastline.
Oil spilled in Arctic waters would be particularly difficult to remove. Currently, there is no proven technology that effectively cleans up oil, especially when it is mixed with broken ice or trapped under ice. An oil spill could seriously harm a rich, complex, and irreplaceable ecosystem found nowhere else in the United States.
The Pew Charitable Trusts is not opposed to offshore drilling, but a balance must be achieved between responsible energy development and protection of the environment. World-leading Arctic standards should be put in place for safety and for oil spill prevention and response in this extreme, remote, and vulnerable ecosystem.
What are Arctic standards?
Arctic Outer Continental Shelf drilling standards would provide consistent requirements for the industry and government 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 the best Arctic science, technology, and practices. Arctic standards should account for the area’s remote location, lack of infrastructure, and extreme operating conditions. These standards should include the following:
Seasonal drilling limits:
Arctic offshore drilling operations in hydrocarbon-bearing zones should be limited to periods when the drilling rig and its spill response systems are capable of working and cleaning up a spill in Arctic conditions. Oil spill response techniques are substantially less efficient during periods of broken ice, during fall ice freeze-up, and when oil is trapped under ice, as well as during times of the year with 24-hour darkness.