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


The April 2010 Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico prompted a reconsideration of the potential for a major blowout from proposed oil exploration or production in the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf. This report was developed to contribute to the policy discussion regarding the risks and consequences of such spills.

Several key concepts underlie the technical information and analysis presented in this report:

  • The Arctic Ocean is a unique operating environment, and the characteristics of the Arctic OCS—its remote location, extreme climate and dynamic sea ice—exacerbate the risks and consequences of oil spills while complicating cleanup.
  • Oil spill contingency plans often underestimate the probability and consequence of catastrophic blowouts, particularly for frontier offshore drilling in the U.S. Arctic Ocean.
  • The impact of an oil well blowout in the U.S. Arctic Ocean could devastate an already stressed ecosystem, and there is very little baseline science upon which to anticipate the impact or estimate damage.
  • Oil spill cleanup technologies and systems are unproved in the Arctic Ocean, and recent laboratory and field trials (including the Joint Industry Program) have evaluated only discrete technologies under controlled conditions.
  • Certain environmental and weather conditions would preclude an oil spill response in the Arctic Ocean, yet an Arctic spill response gap is not incorporated into existing oil spill contingency plans or risk evaluations.

This report recommends several areas in which additional work is needed to reach a level of sufficient planning and preparedness to minimize the potentially adverse effects of an oil spill resulting from offshore oil and gas exploration or production in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. Federal agencies should:

  1. Conduct baseline studies to better understand the marine ecosystem and increase scientific knowledge regarding the Arctic ecology and sensitivity to oil spills  before introduction of new offshore oil spill risks.
  2. Improve spatial data and mapping of Arctic species, habitat and sensitive ecosystems.
  3. Develop oil spill trajectory models with the capability to model oil fate and behavior in the presence of a range of sea ice conditions.
  4. Require operators to plan for the possibility of a worst-case well blowout and adopt all available engineering and management measures to prevent blowouts.
  5. Conduct full-scale deployment exercises under a range of offshore Arctic conditions to determine the limits for safely and effectively mounting a large-scale offshore response in the U.S. Arctic Ocean.
  6. Conduct an Arctic oil spill response gap analysis to delineate the upper operating limits of existing response technologies in the U.S. Arctic Ocean and then estimate the frequency and duration of periods when no oil spill response may be feasible.

About the report authors:

Nuka Research and Pearson Consulting are consulting firms with internationally recognized expertise in oil spill prevention and response.  Together they have 65 years experience in their field.  Their clients include federal and state agencies, oil spill response organizations, oil companies, and non-governmental organizations.  Nuka Research has published over 40 papers on oil spill prevention and response.

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