Ocean Currents

Preventing and Cleaning Up Oil Spills in Arctic Waters

New resource for learning the basics of marine oil spill prevention and response in the U.S. Arctic

Oil rig in Beaufort Sea
An oil rig in the Beaufort Sea © Stockbyte/Getty Images

I spend a lot of time working to reduce the threat of oil spills in Arctic waters, and I’ll be the first to admit the laws and rules governing oil spill prevention and response are not easy to understand. Who gets to make the rules? What rules apply in different areas of the ocean? Which rules apply to which industries? Things can get confusing pretty quickly.

Fortunately, Nuka Research and Planning, LLC recently released a new Primer (a short report that covers the basics of marine oil spill prevention and response) to help stakeholders better understand the answers to all these questions.

The Primer, commissioned by Ocean Conservancy, covers U.S. Arctic and western Alaskan waters from the Aleutian Island chain north to the Bering Sea, Bering Strait, and Chukchi and Beaufort seas. It explains how international, national and state-level rules interact and apply to different maritime users, including the shipping and oil and gas industries. It also explains how different government agencies enforce and carry out laws and regulations designed to keep oil out of the ocean and to respond effectively to spills when they occur. While the Primer focuses on the role of government, it acknowledges that private sector operators can and do play a critical role.

Understanding the rules that govern oil spill prevention and response is important because oil spills are a significant threat to our ocean and coasts. Oil spills can injure or kill wildlife, foul coastlines, contaminate subsistence food sources and wreak havoc on commercial fisheries, tourism and other ocean-based economic sectors.

Oil spills can come from any number of sources: enormous ocean-going tankers, small fishing boats, oil and gas exploration or production operations, coastal oil storage facilities and others. Marine oil spills can range in size from relatively small spills to huge, catastrophic releases. And spills can happen anywhere on the ocean: far out at sea, right at the shoreline or anywhere in between.

With all this variability, it’s not always easy to tell which laws and regulations govern spill prevention and response. Who has jurisdiction in international waters? What about the territorial sea or state waters? Who has jurisdiction over vessels? What about oil rigs? The Primer helps clear up these jurisdictional mysteries using easy-to-understand graphics and straightforward text.

OC Arctic AK Guide Graphic

When it comes to oil spills, prevention is the name of the game. As the Primer says, “[k]eeping an oil spill from happening in the first place is far better than trying to clean one up.” With that in mind, it summarizes state and federal oil spill prevention requirements that apply to vessels, oil exploration and development operations and oil storage facilities in the Arctic and western Alaska.

Unfortunately, prevention isn’t always successful. When oil does spill in the water, a multi-layer response plan kicks into effect, depending on where the oil spill occurred and what the source is. The Primer explains how federal, regional and operator-specific spill response plans and oil spill removal organizations work together. It summarizes the requirements of those spill response plans for tank and non-tank vessels, oil exploration and development operations and oil storage facilities. And it addresses the pros and cons of various strategies that operators can use to respond to marine oil spills, including mechanical recovery (e.g. booms and skimmers), chemical dispersants and burning the oil off the surface of the water (in situ burning).

The Primer also touches on recovery after a marine oil spill. It explains who is responsible for paying for response efforts and how the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Recovery process works toward making the public whole after a spill event.

The Primer packs an enormous amount of useful information into a small, easy-to-read and easy-to-understand package. It’s a terrific resource for those who want to know the basics of the current rules for marine oil spill prevention and response in the U.S. Arctic. We plan to share it with partners and stakeholders here in Alaska as we continue to work together to improve oil spill prevention and response and keep Alaska’s waters safe, clean and healthy. In the meantime, you can dive in and check it out today!

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