Ocean Currents

Commission releases report on Arctic oil spill research

© U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Region

Last month, the United States Arctic Research Commission released a report containing an inventory of ongoing research activities and a series of recommendations regarding oil spills in Arctic waters. The report shows that governments, industry, nonprofit organizations, and others are engaged in a range of Arctic oil spill research development activities. At the same time, however, the report’s recommendations show that much more work is needed to improve oil spill preparedness and response capabilities in the Arctic.

The Arctic Research Commission is an independent federal agency established by the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984. Among other things, the Commission is tasked with establishing policy, priorities, and goals to support a plan for scientific research in the Arctic; promoting cooperation and collaboration among federal agencies active in Arctic research; assisting in the development of a five-year Arctic research plan; and working with Arctic residents, international research programs, and others to develop a broad perspective on Arctic research needs.

The Commission’s November report contains an inventory of past and ongoing research efforts related to oil spills in Arctic waters. The Commission notes that this work “provides a credible foundation for applied research and engineering designs” and “developing more effective response and recovery techniques.”

But the report makes clear that the existing oil spill research is not sufficient. The Commission report highlights the need for further exploration of spill preparedness, spill response effectiveness, and damage assessment. More specifically, the Commission notes that additional research is needed on a host of topics, including issues such as:

– Establishment of environmental baseline conditions;

– Assessment of environmentally sensitive areas;

– Development of oil detection and mapping techniques and modeling of oil spills in, under, and within icy or ice-covered waters;

– Determination of the impacts of response techniques such as burning spilled oil and use of chemical dispersants and “herders”; and

– Assessment of impacts of Arctic oil spills on humans and wildlife.

The Arctic Research Commission’s report ends with a series of recommendations for additional research on spill delineation and mitigation, response technologies for cleanup and recovery of spilled oil, and the fate of oil and its effects on the environment. These recommendations span several pages and include topics that are fundamental to oil spill prevention and recovery in Arctic waters.

If nothing else, the Commission’s recommendations make clear that there are still significant gaps in our understanding of the behavior of oil in icy waters and oil’s impacts on the Arctic environment. They also make clear that there are significant limitations on our ability to prevent and respond effectively to oil spills in the Arctic Ocean. Oil companies who wish to drill in the Arctic–and the government agencies that regulate such activities–should acknowledge these information gaps and be realistic about the limited capabilities of response systems proposed for use in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Damage from a major oil spill in the Arctic Ocean could be catastrophic. That’s why Ocean Conservancy opposes Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in 2013. Instead of moving ahead with risky offshore drilling in the Arctic, scientists need to develop a better understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, federal agencies need to identify and protect important ecological and subsistence areas, and oil companies need to demonstrate that they can effectively clean up a major oil spill under Arctic conditions.

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