Offshore Arctic Oil Spills Not so Easy to Clean up, Study Finds

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Report Refutes US Government Claims that Current Technology Can Clean Up Big Spills

World Wildlife Fund
The MMS touted its findings as ‘look, we can do it,’ but after taking a closer look at their research, they probably should’ve said ‘we’re making progress, but we’re still a long way from being able to clean up oil from an icy ocean.

A World Wildlife Fund report released today reinforces widespread doubts about the oil industry’s ability to clean-up an offshore oil spill in arctic conditions. The authors counter conclusions in a recent report from the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) that the technology and expertise exist to clean up a major offshore oil spill.

“The MMS touted its findings as ‘look, we can do it,’ but after taking a closer look at their research, they probably should’ve said ‘we’re making progress, but we’re still a long way from being able to clean up oil from an icy ocean,’” said World Wildlife Fund Vice President Bill Eichbaum.

The WWF report highlights a series of instances where the government ignored real-world variables that affect the ability to detect, access, and effectively respond to an offshore oil spill in Alaska’s arctic waters.

WWF’s report brings to light challenges that commonly occur in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas including extreme weather and variable ice conditions, along with vast distances between drilling and response infrastructure. These circumstances severely limit the industry’s ability to detect oil before it spreads, get necessary equipment and personnel to the spill, and operate the spill response equipment effectively without putting responders at great risk.

The report also highlights the lack of ice class vessels in Alaska’s arctic and the fact that much of the new technology touted by the industry is not commercially available or adequately tested in the arctic.

According to the report, “Current arctic mechanical response technology will leave most oil in the sea…Oil skimmers are not effective in ice conditions if they cannot reach the spilled oil…Oil trapped under ice is nearly impossible to recover.”

“The weakest link in the response chain will limit response capability,” the authors add. “The inability to track and logistically access the oil under typically severe arctic weather conditions are major weak links in the spill response chain.”

Recent large oil spills in Australia’s Timor Sea and on Alaska’s north slope demonstrate the difficulty of containing and cleaning up oil even under favorable conditions. Oil flowed into the ocean from the blown well in the temperate Timor Sea for 74 days before it could be contained. The Alaska BP spill occurred on land only 1.5 miles from the Prudhoe Bay infrastructure and it took responders several days to build ice roads and ice pads necessary to access the spill.

“If a company that’s been operating in the arctic for decades can’t reach a spill on land only a few miles from its base of operations, what makes MMS think industry can effectively get to a spill that’s hundreds of miles across ice-filled waters from the nearest infrastructure?” Eichbaum said, referring to the BP spill. “Citizens deserve information that’s accurate, not cherry-picked.”

Editor’s Note
The report can be found at: http://www.worldwildlife.org/oilspillreport. It was written by Susan Harvey, who has 22 years of experience in the Alaska Oil and Gas Industry, and holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Petroleum Engineering and a Master’s of Science in Environmental Engineering. She served as the Industry Preparedness and Pipeline Program Manager in the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Spill Prevention and Response. She has also held engineering and supervisory positions at both Arco Alaska, Inc. and BP Exploration (Alaska), Inc.

About World Wildlife Fund
WWF is the world’s leading conservation organization, working in 100 countries for nearly half a century. With the support of almost 5 million members worldwide, WWF is dedicated to delivering science-based solutions to preserve the diversity and abundance of life on Earth, halt the degradation of the environment and combat climate change. Visit http://www.worldwildlife.org to learn more.

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