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Report: U.S. ill equipped to handle Arctic oil spill

Shell Oil's Arctic drill rig, Kulluk, stranded near Kodiak Island, Alaska

A runaway oil drill rig hinted at the extreme challenges facing oil companies in the Arctic. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard.

More resources needed to FRISCO — A new report from the National Research Council suggests that there aren’t nearly enough resources in place to respond to an oil spill in the Arctic. The absence of adequate infrastructure is a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill, the study found, suggesting that an expanded U.S. Coast Guard presence and pre-positioning of key equipment would bolster an effective response.

The study comes as global warming makes the Arctic more accessible to commercial activities like shipping, oil and gas development, and tourism, raising concerns about the increase potential for oil spills. The Arctic poses several challenges to oil spill response, including extreme weather and environmental settings, limited operations and communications infrastructure, a vast geographic area, and vulnerable species, ecosystems, and cultures. 

The report found a need to validate current and emerging oil spill response technologies under these real-world conditions, and recommends that carefully controlled field experiments that release oil in the U.S. Arctic be conducted as part of a long-term, collaborative Arctic oil spill research and development program that spans local, state, and federal levels.

Research areas that would improve science-based decisions about the use of response technologies include determining the biodegradation rates of hydrocarbons in offshore environments and which strategies can accelerate oil degradation; evaluating the toxicity and long-term effects of dispersants and dispersed oil on key Arctic marine species; and communicating the limitations of mechanical recovery in both open water and ice.

Due to the range of conditions typically encountered within the Arctic, no single technique will apply in all situations, and in some cases a viable response option might be no response.  A combination of countermeasures, rather than a single response option, may provide optimal protection, and so the response toolbox requires flexibility to evaluate and apply multiple options if necessary, the report says.

Given the proximity of U.S. Arctic waters to international territories, certain factors should be addressed in advance of an actual event, including communications between command centers, coordinated planning, trans-boundary movement of people and equipment, and identification of translators, the report said.

While formal contingency planning and exercises with Canada have been established, the U.S. Coast Guard should expand its bilateral agreement with Russia to include Arctic spill scenarios and conduct regularly scheduled exercises to establish joint response plans, the report recommends.

The Coast Guard should work with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to develop an oil spill training program for local communities and trained response teams in local villages. They should also integrate local and traditional knowledge of ice and ocean conditions and marine life to enhance oil spill response, the report says.

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