[Exclusive] Deepwater Horizon Informs Arctic Oil Spill Debate

Published Feb 23, 2014 1:04 AM by Wendy Laursen

The Polar Code will not include a ban on use of heavy fuel oil, and environmentalists fear a shipping accident causing a heavy fuel oil spill will have dramatic consequences for fragile Arctic eco-systems.

Russia has already started to upgrade Northern Sea Route infrastructure and plans to build ten new search-and-rescue centers. At a recent conference, Anton Vasiliev, Moscow’s ambassador to the Arctic Council, expressed his confidence in Russia’s readiness for the next wave of northern shipping within three or four years.

Research into oil spill response is on-going globally and techniques employed successfully during the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon response have received increased interest. In 2010, controlled burning of spilled oil with fire booms eliminated between 220,000 and 310,000 barrels of oil that could have otherwise reached shorelines and other sensitive resources in the Gulf of Mexico.

A report released this month by the Arctic Oil Spill Technology-Joint Industry Program discusses the in-situ burning of spilt oil in detail. Research has been conducted on this method since the 70s and has demonstrated on-ice burning of spilled oil could remove almost all of the oil present on an ice surface with only minimal residue. 

Each season presents different drawbacks and opportunities for in-situ burning, states the report. Mid-winter, although associated with long periods of darkness and cold temperatures, provides a stable ice cover that not only naturally contains oil within a relatively small area but also provides a safer working platform for surface oil removal. For spills under or on fast ice, there are a range of effective burning options which can result in very high removal effectiveness. Options to deal with spills in moving pack ice are more limited and likely to result in highly variable removal values depending on a variety of natural conditions and logistics constraints. In these conditions it is often only possible to track the oil until it is released from the ice the following spring and ignite and burn it then.

Environmentalists remain concerned about the oil spill management measures that have been proposed to date. Environmental organization Oceans North says spill response could be delayed for weeks at a time due to the often hazardous conditions, especially during the winter. Oil persists in Arctic environments longer than anywhere else. It can become trapped under sea ice. It also evaporates at a slower rate in cold temperatures. The environmental conditions that characterize the Arctic – sea ice, subzero temperatures, high winds and seas and poor visibility – influence the effectiveness of clean up strategies and how much oil is recovered.

Much of what is known about the long-term effects of oil in a marine environment comes from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster when 250,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the pristine and sheltered waters of Prince William Sound. This was the largest oil spill to occur in close proximity to the U.S. Arctic although it happened in much more accessible conditions.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill was directly responsible for the deaths of an estimated 250,000 sea birds, 22 killer whales, 2800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals and thousands of fish. Even today, researchers believe species such as sea otters may be impacted by the remaining oil because they forage on bottom-dwelling species, stirring up the oil that still remains on the sea bed. More than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, scientists estimate that between 16,000 and 21,000 gallons of oil remain in the environment. The oil is decreasing by a rate of between zero and four per cent a year and will likely persist for decades and perhaps even centuries.

The organization calls for more scientific research into the long-term effects of oil in the Arctic environment, as well as adequate spill response.

Main picture credit: Bjarne Rasmussen