The United States is ill prepared to tackle oil spills in the Arctic, whether from drilling or from cargo and cruise ships traveling through newly passable waterways once clogged with ice, the National Research Council reported Wednesday.
Extreme weather conditions and sparse infrastructure in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas — more than 1,000 miles from the nearest deep-water port — would complicate any broad emergency response. Ice in those remote oceans can trap pockets of oil, locking it beyond the reach of conventional cleanup equipment and preventing it from naturally breaking down over time.
"The lack of infrastructure in the Arctic would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill," scientists said in a 198-page National Research Council report requested by the American Petroleum Institute, the Coast Guard, the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and five other entities. "It is unlikely that responders could quickly react to an oil spill unless there were improved port and air access, stronger supply chains and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies and personnel."
The report offers more than a dozen recommendations for what regulators, the oil industry and other stakeholders need to do to boost their ability to tackle a crude oil or fuel spill at the top of the globe, as retreating sea ice spurs new energy development and ship traffic there.
A chief recommendation: More research across the board, from meteorological studies to investigations of how oil spill cleanup methods would work in the Arctic.
The National Research Council — an arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering — insisted the United States needs "a comprehensive, collaborative, long-term Arctic oil spill research and development program."
The council encouraged controlled releases of oil in Arctic waters — a practice generally barred under U.S. environmental laws — to evaluate response strategies. Although the federal government and oil industry are conducting lab studies that attempt to replicate Arctic conditions, the report suggests there is no substitute for the real thing and said the studies could be done without environmental harm.
Most information on responding to oil spills has been developed in temperate conditions, such as in the Gulf of Mexico, so it may not translate to the Arctic, where cold water and sea ice may limit the amount of oil that naturally disperses and evaporates.
Because no response methods are completely effective or risk-free, the industry and government need a broad "oil spill response toolbox," the report said. Pre-tested and pre-positioned equipment — along with plans for using it — would be critical to ensuring a swift response in an oil spill, the group said.
When Shell was drilling for oil in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort seas in 2012, it stashed containment booms and other equipment along Alaska's northern coast and had a fleet of spill response vessels floating nearby. Shell since has suspended operations there following a series of marine mishaps before and after the drilling projects.
Arctic cleanup options include chemical dispersants that can break down oil, either applied at the surface or near a wellhead, but the researchers said more work is needed to understand their effectiveness and long-term effects in the Arctic.
While burning thick patches of floating oil is a viable spill countermeasure in the Arctic — potentially aided by ice that helps corral the crude — that approach fails when ice drifts apart and oil spreads too thin to ignite.
Using booms, vessels and skimmers to concentrate oil slicks also may be difficult in the region, where there are few disposal sites for the contaminated equipment, sparse port facilities for the vessels and limited airlift capabilities. The National Research Council says this kind of mechanical recovery is probably best for small spills in pack ice, but it would likely be inefficient for a large offshore spill in the U.S. Arctic.
The group also suggested the U.S. Coast Guard's relatively small presence in the U.S. Arctic is not sufficient, and that it needs icebreaking capability, more vessels for responding to emergency situations, and eventually aircraft support facilities that can work year-round.
The report cited other resources now lacking in the Arctic, including equipment to detect, monitor and model the flow of oil on and under ice, and real-time monitoring of vessel traffic in the U.S. Arctic.
A politically tricky recommendation is for the Coast Guard to expand an existing bilateral pact with Russia to allow joint Arctic spill exercises.
Chris Krenz, a Juneau, Alaska-based senior scientist with the conservation group Oceana, said the report offers "a sobering look at our lack of preparedness" and suggests that the U.S. should reconsider whether to allow offshore drilling in the region.
But oil industry representatives said the council rightly calls for more research and resources to combat spills there.
The American Petroleum Institute was "encouraged by the report's emphasis on the need for a full toolbox of spill response technologies," spokesman Carlton Carroll said.
The report was the product of a 14-member committee of the National Research Council, organized by the National Academy of Sciences, with representatives drawn from academia, the oil industry and Alaska.
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