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An Arctic oil spill could linger for years

November 11, 2010 |  6:50 am

 USCG-Healy

Almost everyone can agree that, however bad the Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico was, a major spill in an icy Arctic sea would be worse. How much worse? A new report commissioned by the Pew Environment Group tries to examine that question, and the answer is: Get ready for a cleanup that could take years.

Pulling together a lot of the existing research on cleanup technologies and how well they might work under the kind of nightmare scenarios that are all too easy to imagine -- a spill underneath a solid sheet of pack ice, for example, or oil that attaches itself to drifting ice floes and travels hundreds of miles out to sea.

Cleanup could be hampered by wintertime temperatures that drop on average to minus 49 degrees, fierce Arctic storms, endless darkness and fog that shrouds the region for more than half the days of the year, said the report, prepared by Nuka Research and Planning Group LLC, and Pearson Consulting LLC.

BP's upcoming Liberty production unit, slated to pump oil from beneath the Beaufort Sea by means of long-range drilling tunnels reaching from near shore, has the potential for a blowout of 20,000 barrels a day -- the highest rate in the U.S. Arctic, the report said.

"A blowout from a Beaufort Sea well that occurs during the end of the brief open-water season could continue uncontrolled over the nine-month ice season and result in a spill larger than the Deepwater Horizon blowout that is trapped within and among sea ice until the spring melt," it warned.

The big reason for concern, the survey suggests, is the wide body of research that indicates all the various and confounding places oil can end up in an ice-strewn environment: trapped in "ice pancakes," frozen in place, seeping beneath the pack ice, or caught in the structure of "grease ice."

"Ice floes may transport oil hundreds of miles from the spill source. The slick can also move underneath ice floes...or be tossed on top of them in wave action," the report said. "Oil trapped under multiyear ice could remain in the marine environment for many years...and may not be released until it slowly migrates to the surface. Some scientists estimate that oil could be trapped under multiyear ice for up to a decade."

Shell Alaska, which is hoping to commence offshore drilling in the Beaufort Sea in the summer, has said its offshore wells will operate at relatively low pressures with no chance of a blowout even approaching the size of Deepwater Horizon. The company has proposed robust new protections to stop leaks quickly at the source should they occur and plans to have an armada of cleanup gear on site and nearby.

Some studies undertaken in Norway have shown that, under certain conditions, cold temperatures and broken ice can actually make spill cleanups easier, by slowing the breakdown of the oil and helping to corral it in open water between ice floes, industry officials say.

But Marilyn Heiman of Pew said the new report underlines the need for more studies to measure how standard oil cleanup technologies will work in the Arctic, better understanding of oil spill trajectories during icy conditions, and better plans to deliver a cleanup response in a region that is 1,300 miles from the nearest major port and 950 miles from the nearest Coast Guard base.

“Sites proposed for drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean are some of the most remote areas on Earth, and the challenges of drilling are formidable. Until reforms ensure that oil companies can respond to significant spills in real-world conditions, all proposed oil and gas leasing, exploration and development in the U.S. Arctic should be suspended," she said.

Alaska's Democratic U.S. senator, Mark Begich, said he has proposed legislation that would significantly increase protections for drilling and shipping in the Arctic but said Pew's call for an extended moratorium on Arctic drilling is unwarranted.

“There’s no dispute that the Arctic Ocean holds enormous natural resources, from oil and gas to fisheries. The impacts of climate change mean those resources are becoming increasingly more accessible for development and the Arctic Ocean will soon be a regular transit point for international shipping," the senator said in a statement responding to the Pew report.

 “Arctic resource development and transportation can be done responsibly while protecting the other important values of the region, especially the fish and wildlife vital to the subsistence way of life for residents of Alaska’s North Slope."

Meanwhile, questions are growing about the use of existing spill cleanup technologies, especially chemical dispersants, on wildlife in pristine places like Alaska.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed  notice of its intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard for including the potential use of dispersants in oil spill cleanup plans around Alaska without first conducting full environmental consultations on how the potentially toxic chemicals could affect endangered and threatened species such as the polar bear, Cook Inlet beluga whales, Steller sea lions and other species. 

“Oil spills are bad enough for wildlife. We shouldn’t add insult to injury by using toxic dispersants without fully  understanding the damage they might cause. That mistake was made this year when nearly 2 million gallons of dispersants were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. We shouldn’t repeat the error in Alaska,” Rebecca Noblin, the organization's Alaska director, said in a statement.

At a hearing this week in Anchorage on the new supplemental environmental studies prepared for Shell's offshore drilling plans in the Chukchi Sea, actor Ted Danson, a board member of the conservation group Oceana who happened to be in Alaska making a movie, spoke out against rushing to drill in the Arctic seas.

"We feel that the draft that has come out is actually basically saying, 'Yes, we know we don't know this certain amount of science, but it's OK that we don't know that science to go ahead and start drilling,'" he said. "We disagree. We feel that that would be a mistake."

--Kim Murphy in Juneau, Alaska

 Photo: The ice breaker Healy, one of the U.S. Coast Guard's limited response assets in the Arctic. Credit: Coast Guard

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