Most Arctic oil spills impossible to clean up: WWF
"It raises the question about whether it would be acceptable to authorize drilling"
If a major oil spill happened today in the Arctic, it would be impossible to clean it up much of the time, says the World Wildlife Fund.
“This hypothetical ability to respond may not really exist” because crews might not even be able to reach the spill, says Rob Powell, director of the environmental group’s Mackenzie River Basin Program.
Next week Powell plans to attend the National Energy Board’s roundtable in Inuvik, the agency’s final consultation during its review to develop guidelines for offshore drilling in the Arctic.
There, the WWF will present its own analysis of figures presented in NEB-commissioned expert study by S.L. Ross Environmental Research Ltd. which looked at the challenges involved in promptly cleaning up an oil spill in the Davis Strait and the Beaufort Sea.
The consultants looked at the “spill response gap,” that is, how “often a spill response option cannot be implemented due to environmental conditions such as winds, waves, temperature, visibility, and daylight.”
They found “at least one” of the clean-up methods — burning, containment and recovery of the oil or applying dispersants to break up the oil on the water — could be used during the period when open water is usually present, August through November for Davis Strait..”
According to that study, if a major spill were to occur in Arctic waters, cleanup crews would have to spend, on average, three to five days of each week “simply standing by, watching helplessly as the blowout or spill continued to foul fragile Arctic ecosystems,” Powell said.
But the reality could turn out to be much worse, WWF found.
Using the consultants’ figures, WWF re-calculated the percentage of time when no response would be possible due to environmental conditions.
And WWF found the response gap to be “even more significant” when all ice conditions and other limiting factors, such as wind chill, are taken into consideration.
Its analysis found that a clean-up would not be possible 44 to 84 per cent of time during the short Arctic drilling season.
For the remaining seven or eight months of the year, during the winter, no spill clean-up would be possible.
“These are very sobering numbers and I think it raises the question about whether it would be acceptable to authorize drilling knowing that if there is an accident that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to respond,” Powell said.
People who live in the North will have to decide what risks are worth taking, he said.
“But I think anyone looking at these numbers would have to say “whoa, not very good.”
The WWF is not opposed to drilling, but if the risks involved in drilling in the Arctic seem to be unacceptable then no drilling should be allowed, he said.
In Inuvik, the NEB, which visited Iqaluit, Clyde River and Pond Inlet for consultations during its Arctic offshore drilling review, will discuss the many comments and documents which its received during its review.
Then, the NEB board will consider all the information gathered and issue a public report.
Its results will help develop filing requirements for future Arctic offshore drilling applications.
The roundtable meeting in Inuvik, scheduled to run from 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. from Sept. 12 to Sept. 16, will be broadcast live over the NEB’s website.
The roundtable will be interpreted into Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut and French and you can listen over the telephone by dialing 1-888-999-9261.