Nunavut oil spill would be hard to detect, harder to clean up: NPC report
Study done for Nunavut Planning Commission recommends developing local response capacity
A new report prepared for the Nunavut Planning Commission says there is very limited knowledge of how to respond to an oil spill in waters off Nunavut or to how to predict how far spilled oil could travel under sea ice.
It also calls on Nunavut communities to build their own capacity for dealing with potential spills.
The report, called Oil Spill Detection and Modeling Report in the Hudson and Davis Straits, was commissioned to respond to concerns among Nunavummiut about seismic testing and potential oil and gas development off the coast of Baffin Bay.
The commission, tasked with developing the Draft Nunavut Land Use Plan, heard during consultations that one of the biggest concerns among Inuit in the Qikiqtani region is food security.
Nunavummiut wanted to know what would happen to the sea mammals they hunt for food if an oil spill were to occur.
The findings of the new report, released July 4, aren’t so reassuring.
While a number of different technologies have been developed to detect and monitor oil on open water, the report found that little research is available to describe how oil behaves in marine environments where ice and snow are factors.
That’s particularly true for the Hudson and Davis Straits, critical corridors for marine transportation in Nunavut and primary access points for the delivery of goods to communities such as Kimmirut and Cape Dorset, and to the Kivalliq region.
The paper looked at research on oil spills done over the last few decades elsewhere in the world — and found that sea ice is not considered in most oil spill models.
And even when it is, the formulations over-simplify the problem, it said.
Research into oil spill management should be looking to the latest ocean-ice and atmospheric models, the report suggested, while also incorporating upcoming satellite missions in spill monitoring.
Snow and ice can impact the behaviour of oil in many ways, the report said.
On the one hand, cold temperatures can slow the movement and spread of oil. On the other hand, oil absorbed into snow and ice could become stuck until the spring melt.
The fate of an Arctic oil spill would depend entirely on ice conditions at the time of the spill, which can vary greatly, the report said.
For example, an oil spill during freeze-up could see oil pool and freeze under the growing ice sheet.
And at ice break-up, the oil would then be carried on ice floes and distributed through tidal action.
Snow and ice floes can also obscure oil making it difficult it quantify, the report said.
In the case of a fall or winter spill, the report suggested any company responsible for a spill would likely have to wait until the sea ice melted before they could attempt to clean up the region.
And during that time, an oil slick could potentially travel hundreds of kilometres and kill countless sea mammals.
The report goes on to recommend that, if oil and gas development proceeds in Hudson or Davis Strait, communities must be prepared to respond to a spill right away.
That means training local people in oil spill awareness along with shoreline protection, data gathering and remote sensing.
“In order to facilitate effective shoreline cleanup in the event of a spill, the Hudson and Davis Straits should be mapped to identify environmentally sensitive shoreline areas, as defined by Environment Canada criteria, traditional knowledge and community importance,” the report recommended.
A central contact point should also be established with the Government of Nunavut to coordinate oil spill response across the territory, it said, including training and interaction with other levels of government, the report said.
The report comes as the National Energy Board approves a five-year seismic testing program in Baffin Bay and the Davis Strait, opposed by many Baffin residents.
But the NPC said Bernard Valcourt, the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, along with the National Energy Board, aren’t paying much attention to their concerns.
“The Nunavut Marine Council, in which the [Nunavut Planning] Commission is a member, advised the National Energy Board and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada of the public concern and limitations in industry knowledge of how to react to oil spills when sea ice is present,” the commission said July 4.
“The NEB and AANDC, as well as Minister Bernard Valcourt, dismissed the NMC’s concerns.”
That’s likely a reference to Valcourt’s rejection of a recommendation from the NMC to delay seismic testing until after his department completes a strategic environmental assessment of the region.
Oil Spill Detection and Modeling Report in the Hudson and Davis Straits was prepared by a research firm called LookNorth in St. John’s, Nfld.
A copy of the full report is available here.