Researchers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and various other insitutions work on the ice of the Chukchi Sea.
In the background is the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, the Healy.
This is a field campaign of the NASA-sponsored ICESCAPE.
(Photo Credit: Ms Marie C Darling (RDECOM))
This article is part of an Arctic in Context series featuring Winter 2017 Arctic Research Fellows from the International Policy Institute, in the Henry M. Jackson School at the University of Washington.
This Arctic research program is dedicated to improving the transfer of research and expertise between higher education and the policy world in the area of global affairs.
“It seemed truly like the ending of a world.
Seabirds were dying by the thousands in the muck.
Vast stocks of salmon and herring and halibut would perish next.”
This description in National Geographic of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill is meant to be dramatic.
As we’ve seen time and time again, oil spills have devastating impacts on the environment, wildlife, and local communities, and the effects linger long after the cleanup crews have gone home.
Today, as melting sea ice makes oil more accessible, the risk of a spill is moving north into Arctic territories.
While a major oil spill has yet to occur in the Arctic, the Arctic Council began to look seriously at oil spill prevention and recovery after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill—the largest marine oil spill in history—which the United States failed to stop from gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and was unable to clean up entirely.
If this type of spill were to occur in the Arctic, the lack of major nearby ports and unforgiving weather would make response much more difficult, not to mention the devastation to a delicate and already stressed ecosystem.
The Arctic may hold up to 13 percent of the world’s untapped oil, but due to its fragile and dangerous environment, the U.S. and Canada both placed a moratorium on new oil leases in the region in December 2016.
However, under the Trump administration, oil allies Rex Tillerson and Scott Pruitt may influence the decision to lift the ban on oil drilling in the Arctic.
Fortunately, some preventative measures have been taken by Arctic states.
To avoid an Arctic oil spill and to formulate a response plan in the event that one occurs, the Arctic Council and its eight member states signed the legally binding Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic in 2013.
Three polar bears approach the starboard bow of the submarine USS Honolulu while it is surfaced 450km (280 miles) from the North Pole.
Sighted by a lookout from the bridge of the submarine, the bears investigated the boat for almost two hours before leaving.
(U. S. Navy Photo by Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs)
But even with this agreement, is the U.S. ready for an Arctic oil spill?
The agreement is meant to enable cross-border sharing of knowledge, resources, and equipment to assist in the cleanup of large-scale disasters.
Rarely do we see preventative policies enacted before a major disaster, especially on an international scale.
The agreement states that each country must identify areas of special ecological significance that may be at risk, have appropriate equipment ready to be deployed, and determine who in the government can request international assistance and who in other countries can respond to such requests in a timely manner.
The agreement also stipulates that in an emergency, regulatory barriers to shipping across borders must be removed—a direct response to the issues that arose after Deepwater Horizon.
But perhaps most practically, countries are advised to carry out joint exercises to improve the ability of responders to work together.
In the Arctic, where limited knowledge about the behavior of oil in an icy environment makes the potential effects of a spill difficult to predict, practice is especially important.
The United States ratified the agreement in 2016, a noteworthy accomplishment given the challenge of ratifying international pacts in Congress.
A cleanup worker walks through the oily surf at Naked Island on Prince William Sound on April 2, 1989, a week after the beginning of the oil disaster that occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled 11 million gallons (42 million liters) of crude oil off Alaska, near the oil pipeline tanker terminal in Valdez Harbor.
AFP / Chris Wilkins
The United States has also identified sensitive areas, participated in additional joint scenarios, and ensured oil spill equipment is available.
But although the country has made progress, the 2014 consensus from the National Research Council (NRC) and other organizations is that Washington is not fully prepared for the all the unknowns that come along with an Arctic oil spill.
To Buck Parker, a member of the U.S. delegation that helped draft the Arctic Council’s agreement, one of the largest issues with the Deepwater Horizon incident was the United States’ difficulty accepting help from other countries.
While other countries offered resources and equipment to stop the spill and work on cleanup, questions arose about whether these offers would violate U.S. coastal shipping laws.
France, for example, offered oil dispersants that are not approved for use in the U.S.
This specifically raised concerns about the Jones Act on international shipping and whether this law was hindering the United States’ ability to accept aid for oil spill cleanup.
Part of this coordination must be directed at gathering more information about what an oil spill in the Arctic would entail.
The NRC report’s recommendations reflect the Arctic Council’s push for joint exercises, and it advises that experiments with spilling oil in the Arctic will be necessary to better understand how oil behaves in cold and icy environments.
Further, mapping and monitoring of the Arctic Ocean need to be improved: Updating nautical charts, mapping the coastlines and seafloor topography, and collecting other data could be vital for ships to efficiently respond to a spill.
Research from the NRC shows that increased U.S. Coast Guard presence would allow for a faster response to a spill given the remote location of the Arctic.
It is unclear under the Trump administration whether the Coast Guard budget would allow for an increased presence.
Shell's drilling rig Kulluk ran aground in the Arctic in 2012, and the company abandoned exploratory drilling in the region in 2015 after finding little oil or gas.
Credit: Staff Sgt Aaron M. Johnson/U.S. Air Force
The Arctic Council’s agreement has laid the foundation for cooperative environmental action, but if the Arctic nations truly want to protect the already fragile ecosystem of the High North and the people who call it home, this is only the start.
Given the lack of infrastructure, unpreparedness for response, and lack of knowledge about oil in icy environments, a spill in the Arctic today would likely be worse than the Deepwater Horizon incident.
The Arctic Council needs to build on the agreement and nations must follow through on their commitments before drilling begins again.
While U.S. and Canadian legislation has closed the opportunity for new lease sales and drilling in the Arctic, the risk remains.
The cost of preventing and preparing for a disaster is a small price to pay when compared with the cost of a large oil spill and its long-lasting, catastrophic ramifications.
- Scientific American : The US Is Not Ready to Clean Up an Arctic Oil Spill / Accelerating Sea Ice Floes Could Spread Pollution Faster
- News Deeply : More Needs to Be Done to Prepare for an Arctic Oil Spill
- NY Times : With More Ships in the Arctic, Fears of Disaster Rise
- Eco Watch : Trump Administration Approves Exploratory Drilling in Arctic Ocean
- GeoGarage blog : Obama invokes 1953 law to indefinitely block drilling in Arctic and ... / Oil drilling in Arctic Ocean: A push into uncharted waters / Polar code agreed to prevent Arctic environmental ... / The battle for the North Pole: Melting ice brings ... / The great Arctic oil race begins / No to Arctic drilling / Arctic drilling: EPA grants Shell an air quality permit for ... / BP oil spill: the environmental impact one year on