Oil Spill Prevention and Response in the U.S. Arctic Ocean: Unexamined Risks, Unacceptable Consequences details major gaps in response planning and Arctic marine ecosystem science. Government and industry oil spill response plans fail to account for the region’s remoteness and harsh conditions and fail to protect the fragile Arctic marine ecosystems and food webs that support walrus, polar bears and other marine mammals found nowhere else in the United States.
Oil Spill Prevention and Response in the U.S. Arctic Ocean: Unexamined Risks, Unacceptable Consequences
Policy Recommendations:Oil Spill Prevention and Response in the Arctic Ocean
This report provides a comprehensive analysis of the difficulties of drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. It identifies several major challenges to responding to and cleaning up oil spills in the Arctic. These challenges include remoteness (almost no roads or docks, minimal response manpower), extreme conditions (shifting sea ice, fog, 20 foot seas, hurricane force winds) and the reality that standards are not in place to ensure that a catastrophic spill can be contained and controlled or that fragile Arctic shorelines will be protected.
U.S. Coast Guard Ice Breaker Healy in U.S. Arctic Waters
- The Arctic Ocean is a vital ecosystem for unique species found nowhere else in the US: polar bears, ice seal species, walrus, bowhead whales, and myriad fish and bird species. This ecosystem and its iconic species already are under strain from climate change. Even a moderate-sized spill that occurs in an area where sensitive or threatened species are concentrated could have devastating effects.
- Approximately 8,000 people live in this area, and depend on marine mammals and fish for as much as 60 percent of their diet. A reduction in the availability or safety of subsistence foods could have a profound impact on both the economy and culture of Arctic communities.
- Shifting sea ice, high seas, brutal winds and sub-zero temperatures could shut down spill response any time of the year. Even if drilling were limited to open-water season, a blowout that occurred late in the fall could continue for eight or nine months if a relief drill could not be completed before the ice pack moved in.
The Arctic Ocean presents unique challenges to oil and gas drilling that should not be underestimated. Before exploration and production drilling proceeds in Arctic waters, the Department of the Interior and other agencies must ensure that requirements are in place to control and contain a spill in Arctic marine conditions and to protect the fragile ocean and coastal ecosystems. The key issues that must be addressed include:
Walrus, Arctic Ocean
- the need for research and data collection to provide an understanding of Arctic species, ecosystems and environmental conditions, and the impacts of oil spills in that environment;
- the need for candid risk assessments and imposition of risk prevention measures;
- identification of the response gap (shortfalls in spill response systems) and spill prevention measures that must be in place to mitigate that response gap.
- enhanced and vigilant oversight by government agencies and citizens to reduce the possibility of oil spills.
Sea Ice in the Arctic
© Henry Huntington
Nuka Research and pearson [dot] consulting [at] mac [dot] com (Pearson Consulting) are consulting firms with internationally recognized expertise in oil spill prevention and response. Together they have 65 years experience in our 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.
Tim Robertson, general manager of Nuka Research, has spent his professional career in Alaska, including past work as a fishery biologist, drilling mud engineer on the North Slope and in Cook Inlet; director of operations for Seldovia, Alaska during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill; and delegate to the negotiated rulemaking committee for the U.S. vessel response plan regulations promulgated under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. He has participated in the Incident Management Team for many oil spills since the Exxon Valdez, and has organized and facilitated dozens of oil spill response exercises, emergency management drills and equipment deployment trainings.Robertson holds a Master of Science degree in Fisheries Biology from the University of Alaska, Southeast.
Elise DeCola is the operations manager of Nuka Research. Her professional career began as a policy fellow in the Rhode Island Senate, where she organized hearings and drafted legislation to strengthen Rhode Island's oil spill prevention and response program in the wake of the 1996 North Cape oil spill. She has since worked on oil spill policy research and contingency plan development and review in Alaska, New England and several Gulf Coast states. She regularly conducts field preparedness exercises for oil spill responders in the Northeast. DeCola holds an M.A. in Marine Affairs from the University of Rhode Island.
Leslie Pearson is President of Pearson Consulting, LLC, which specializes in emergency management, planning, preparedness, policy research and regulatory compliance. Prior to starting a business, she spent 19 years with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, including six year as the Oil Spill Response Program manager. She began her tenure with the ADEC in 1989 during the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. Her regulatory career focused specifically on issues associated with oil pollution planning, preparedness, response, damage assessment and response technology. Pearson earned a Master’s of Science in Environmental Science from Alaska Pacific University.