Arctic oil spills spell big headaches for responders
Controlled fires, chemical dispersants the only solutions
As oil exploration and drilling ramps up off the coast of West Greenland, many people in Nunavut worry about what could happen if there were an oil blowout or spillage in Arctic waters.
Last year, images from the Deepwater Horizon spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico were broadcast all over the world.
But few in the Arctic likely realize that the clean-up of an Arctic oil spill wouldn’t include ships towing oil-containment berms and skimmers or volunteers wiping off oil-soaked seabirds.
This is what the clean-up of an oil spill from an Arctic offshore rig would look entail: massive gasoline-fueled fires set on the ice to burn off the oil, huge quantities of chemicals shot down into the water, and hundreds of people airlifted in for the clean-up effort.
And, if such an offshore oil spill ever occurred in the Arctic, none of these measures might be able to contain the spill, according to documents filed with the National Energy Board’s Arctic drilling review.
The aftermath of a spill in the Arctic Ocean could also last for years and accelerate polar warming.
A look at these documents filed with the NEB, the agency that regulates offshore oil drilling in the Canadian Arctic, reveals the oil companies’ plans for an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean and other groups’ fears.
To develop guidelines for safety and environmental requirements for offshore drilling in the Arctic, the NEB asked for briefs about the industry’s state of preparedness in responding to drilling accidents and spills, contingency plans, emergency response plans, and response infrastructure, equipment, supplies and training needs.
Among oil companies who filed documents: Chevron Canada Limited, a subsidiary of Chevron Corp., one of the world’s leading energy companies.
To combat an oil spill in the Arctic, Chevron favours a combination of oil burning and chemicals called dispersants, which break up oil, saying “new technology and innovative approaches may be needed to face the challenges of the Arctic offshore drilling environment”... “in the unlikely event of an Arctic oil spill.”
An undersea blowout, most likely to occur at the end of the drilling season during freeze-up, could throw out as much as 10,000 barrels of oil a day, for months on end.
Here’s the good news cited by Chevron in its two responses to the NEB about how it would deal with such a spill: “the fringe of fast ice common off most Arctic shorelines by mid-October acts as an impermeable barrier and prevents oil spilled offshore at freeze-up from entering and contaminating sensitive coastal areas for an extended period of time,” it says.
However, here are some the challenges in dealing with an Arctic oil spill, cited by Chevron:
• difficulty in accessing oil trapped on or under ice;
• poor results with skimmers to access oil trapped within ice leads;
• a need to rapidly burn and remove oil contained in isolated, thick pools;
• low temperatures and darkness, which means clean-ups would have to be put off until spring when working and flying conditions are more favorable.
But, as a clean-up measure, burning oil isn’t an ideal solution: experiments show oil can generate “voluminous quantities of sooty black smoke and tarry residue,” notes Greenpeace in its comments to the NEB.
Greenpeace cites scientific reports about the Arctic Ocean and oil development published 35 years ago by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
These said spilled oil in the Arctic could have a potential impact on climate change and the world’s climate because it would absorb more light and heat.
“The question of whether a large inadvertent spill of oil into the Arctic Ocean could change the world’s climate is of great concern. The perceived danger is that the dark-coloured oil would melt off large areas of sea ice in summer. Although localized in its effect at first, the accident might trigger changes in a complex and perhaps unstable system which could lead to a dramatic reduction or even elimination of Arctic sea ice,” the DFO study said.
The warming effect of summer sunlight on the spilled oil could result in an ice-melt area up to 10 times the size of the actual size of the spill.
But the worst-case condition for a spill would occur if the oil was trapped in moving polar pack ice and moved with ocean currents, Greenpeace says.
The tarry residue on a piece of contaminated ice one kilometre wide by 600 km long would have to be cleaned up within 30 days during the spring melt or it would spread to an “uncontrollable extent.”
For this clean-up, an estimated 750 people would be required, but likely even more people would be needed because ice conditions would not permit the use of heavy machinery, it says.
Even under the best of conditions, after a successful burn, a great deal of oil residue would be likely to remain on the ice.
“Much of that oil will eventually wash up on the region’s shorelines,” Greenpeace says.
When oil or tar is recovered, there’s another problem: there’s no place in the Arctic where oily materials can be dumped “without very extensive civil-engineering work, and ongoing care would be required.”
As for chemical solvents, they’re not a good solution, either Greenpeace says: they’re better for seabirds, but worse for ocean life like fish or marine mammals.
And more dispersants would be needed in colder waters where ice conditions would limit their effectiveness.
Lack of capacity in the Canadian Arctic to deal with a major oil spill is also an issue, Greenpeace says.
The Canadian Coast Guard are first responders for oil spills under Canada’s Marine Oil Spill Preparedness Regime.
But Greenpeace points out that a 2010 federal audit found the Coast Guard ill-equipped to do the job and concluded that its Emergency Response Services are “constantly challenged to respond to a large number of incidents on an annual basis, amidst a number of strategic challenges.”
All these concerns worry the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada, which also submitted comments to the NEB.
ICC asks future Arctic drilling should only go ahead after social and economic impact assessments “of the highest standards” and “occur with the full engagement of the Inuit in the decision-making process.”
The ICC also wants to see:
• same-year relief capability on site and adequately prepared before any drilling or exploration takes place;
• sufficient clean-up and containment equipment nearby; and,
• involvement of all relevant bodies, “especially the Inuit organizations of the region being explored,” in the process and plan to address any potential spill, “especially a worst case scenario.”
The results of the NEB review will be published in a public report by end of 2011.
To date, the NEB has received 5,000 pages of commentary on the review.
The NEB, which visited Iqaluit in May, plans host a roundtable in Inuvik this September— and those who wish to participate can apply for funding to attend at http://www.neb-one.gc.ca.