Experts Worry about Cleanup of Arctic Oil Spills
By Bob Weber
Friday 24 December 2004
Ice interferes with normal methods of purging oil after accidents.
As the world's energy industry begins a cautious return to Arctic waters, environmentalists, scientists and governments are increasingly concerned about its ability to clean up after the accidents some say will inevitably follow.
"There continues to be no effective method for cleaning up an oil spill on ice," said Samantha Smith, director of the World Wildlife Fund's Arctic program.
"Yes, there's research going on, but it's not keeping pace with the areas where companies are going," she said from Oslo, Norway.
"They're taking a big gamble with technology that everyone agrees is not really adequate."
Scientific reports bear out her concern.
Last March, a U.S. Arctic Research Commission report concluded that nearly all the techniques used to clean up oil spills in southern waters are useless or nearly so in the North.
Booms that corral spills in open seas are ineffective in waters clogged with chunks of ice.
Sweden has reported that in a recent spill, such systems only recovered about 7 per cent of the oil.
Dispersants used to dissolve spilled oil don't work in cold water, and many are toxic.
As well, there's no way to track the spread of a spill once it gets under the ice.
Even transferring slushy mixtures of spilled oil and bits of ice "presents a major challenge," the report says.
The state of the art is simply to burn the oil where it floats.
Not only is that limited by wind and wave action; some say it releases contaminants such as dioxins into an Arctic environment that already gets more than its share of them drifting up from the South.
"The greatest need is to develop a credible and effective response to oil that has been spilled in moving, broken pack ice," the report concludes - conditions that describe great stretches of Arctic water for much of the year.
In November, the Arctic Council, an advisory group of the world's eight Arctic nations, commissioned a two-year scientific study of the potential impacts of energy exploration in the North.
One of its major topics will be cleaning up oil spills in ice-choked waters, said Dennis Thurston of the U.S. Minerals Management Service, who will co-lead the study.
"All the traditional methods of gathering oil don't work real well [in the Arctic]," he said from Anchorage, Alaska. "We have a ways to go."
Industry is already moving.
On Dec. 2, Devon Energy filed plans with the National Energy Board to drill the first offshore well in Canada's Beaufort Sea in 13 years.
Although Devon will drill close enough to shore to be on stable ice, energy majors including Talisman, BP, Anadarko and Chevron also have multiyear exploration licenses in the Beaufort, some of which are considerably further out.
Canadian Natural Resources has a similar license just north of Baffin Island.
Exploration permits require drilling within a certain time or the company forfeits both its deposit and the lease.
Although the main target is natural gas, oil and other liquids are typically found as well.
There's certainly gas out there.
There are more than two dozen "significant discovery" leases across Canadian Arctic waters.
The National Energy Board estimates there are 52 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Beaufort Sea, four times the reserves onshore.
As infrastructure such as pipelines moves closer to construction, Mr. Thurston expects the pace of development to pick up.
"Those are the kinds of things that will open up exploration and development," he said.
The opening of the Trans-Alaska pipeline made a big difference to offshore exploration in Alaska, he added: "It kicked it in the pants."
More activity means more risk, said Ms. Smith, and the stakes may be higher in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world.
Ms. Smith points out that because the Arctic is a low-energy environment, it takes much longer for industrial impacts to fade.
As well, Arctic marine species tend to concentrate in certain areas at certain times of the year. An accident in one of those places during the short summer growing season - also the easiest time of year for exploration - would be catastrophic, she said.
"If it's at the wrong place at the wrong time, you could actually wipe out a good portion of the population. Oil spills, particularly offshore in the Arctic, can have very big effects, maybe bigger than some other parts of the world."
Because of the high cost of operating in the North, energy development and exploration will likely take place over a period of years. Even Devon's $80-million drilling program will stretch out over a decade.
But observers such as Colonel Norm Couturier, commander of the Canadian Forces Northern Area, believe that agencies should start preparing now for accidents.
The military is already planning a major exercise in 2006 involving all branches of the service as well as civilian agencies to help build disaster preparedness in the Mackenzie Delta and Beaufort Sea.
Cleanup capability will probably return quickly return to what it was during the last offshore drilling boom back in the eighties, says Norm Snow, director of the Inuvialuit Renewable Resource Committee and member of the Arctic Council's emergency preparedness working group.
But broken ice will still be a problem, and more research is needed, he says.
"We used to say it's time for a good spill every 10 years or so to keep politicians on their toes," Dr. Snow jokes.
"[Broken ice] is probably the most difficult environment of all."