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Can We Handle an Arctic Oil Spill?

Drilling in the Arctic has just begun, but when it comes to the science of safety, it turns out there are still a lot of unknowns.
(Photo: vitstudio/Shutterstock)

(Photo: vitstudio/Shutterstock)

This week, President Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Arctic Alaska. His visit mirrors larger efforts to take a more aggressive stance against climate change. Included in the president's agenda: stricter rules governing power plant carbon emissions as well as policies designed to help Arctic communities adapt to sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and the other daily reminders of climate change unfolding before their eyes.

"I don't need to tell people here in Alaska what's happening," Obama told a crowd in Kotzebue, Alaska. "I've been trying to make the rest of the country aware of a changing climate, but you're already living it." It's a poignant statement. Nowhere is climate change happening faster than in the Arctic, and now, Kotzebue and other coastal Arctic communities on the shores of the Chukchi Sea are priming for oil drilling in one of the world's largest untapped reserves.

The Alaskan Arctic could hold around 13 percent of the world's oil, according to the United States Geological Survey. In August, the federal government gave Royal Dutch Shell the final go ahead to start drilling for oil in the untouched waters of Chukchi Sea, located off the state's northwest coast.

The Alaskan Arctic, a veritable goldmine of oil, could hold around 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil.

Should an oil spill ever occur in the Arctic, there are a lot of unknowns regarding the challenges of detecting oil in icy conditions, how freezing waters might impact the effectiveness of dispersants, or how the remoteness of the drilling region could prolong response times. Proposed regulations from the Department of Interior would require operators to have on-site access to equipment like a cap and flow system and containment dome, both of which are essential to clean-up efforts in the event of a major blowout. But under that proposal, smaller communities and villages along the coast would still remain virtually unprepared for an oil spill, says Marilyn Heiman, who works as director of the United States Arctic division at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"Right around where Shell is drilling, I think they have, I'm not going to say 'adequate,' but they have equipment to respond to a spill," Heiman says. "But if [oil] gets outside of the area near where they're drilling, they're going to have an incredibly difficult time, whether there's ice or no ice. There's a lot of shoreline, a lot of shoreline. Thousands of miles that are unprotected."

Extreme weather, less daylight, lack of infrastructure, and the sheer remoteness of the drilling area also complicate spill response times. Arriving to a spill or leakage site with skimmers, booms, and the like could take much longer in the isolated Arctic. According to a 2014 report by the National Research Council, the U.S. Coast Guard has little presence in the Arctic and would have serious issues responding to an oil spill—a major concern, considering the extreme cold, high winds, and powerful storms that can materialize with little notice.

"USCG personnel, equipment, transportation, communication, navigation, and safety resources needed for oil spill response are not adequate for overseeing oil spill response in the Arctic," the report states, "and the Coast Guard's efforts to support Arctic oil spill planning and response in the absence of a dedicated and adequate budget are admirable but inadequate."

Oil also behaves much differently in icy, freezing water than in the warmer waters of the Gulf. While there is some federal research into how oil responds in ice, fully understanding how oil behaves in an Arctic environment is challenging at best. "We are pretty certain that if there's ice, it will be virtually impossible to clean up," Heiman says. "It's a very different scenario than drilling in temperate waters. So there's a lot we don't know."

"If oil gets outside of the area near where they're drilling, they're going to have an incredibly difficult time, whether there's ice or no ice.

Should a larger spill occur, the federal government has also mandated Shell to have the on-site capability to cap the well. Of course, oil could still enter Arctic waters in other ways, from smaller line or pipe leaks to boating accidents. Federal restrictions also limit drilling to take place until the end of September, when significant ice cover in the region begins.

But ice flows in the Arctic can be unpredictable. And oil trapped under ice can be particularly difficult to detect, says Nancy Kinner, director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. The underside of an ice sheet isn't flat; it actually resembles a cave full of stalactites, according to Kinner. Ice also grows downward, so normally these pockets would continue to fill, growing thicker and thicker. Oil released under growing ice can become trapped in these crevices.

Not only is oil trapped under ice difficult to detect with cameras, an entire delicate ecosystem exists in the area where ice sheets and water meet. The effects of an oil slick lingering underneath an ice sheet could impact the entire food chain: the zooplankton that feed on the bacteria on the ice; the fish that thrive on the plankton; the seals eating the fish. Marine noise pollution—caused by seismic noise surveys used to locate oil deposits on the seafloor—could also affect marine mammals like bowhead whales and ice seals, which both use sonar to migrate and find food. Shell is currently researching whether installing underwater bubble curtains near drill sites could form a sound barrier and protect marine life, but the research is ongoing.

"I like to say organisms that live in the arctic, they're in a tough, tough world. They're very well adapted, but it's hard to survive," Kinner says. "It may take a while for those populations to recover, longer than it may take for other environments."

Hopefully, that hypothesis won't be put to the test.