Oil from a spill or oil well blowout in the Arctic waters of Canada's Beaufort Sea could easily become trapped in sea ice and potentially spread more than 1,000 kilometres to the west coast of Alaska, a World Wildlife Fund study showed on Friday.
The WWF contracted RPS Applied Science Associates to model 22 different oil spill scenarios and map the spread of the oil, potential impact on the water and shoreline, and interaction with sea ice, wildlife and the surrounding ecology.
Types of oil spills analyzed included shipping spills, shallow-water blowouts and deep-water blowouts. The BP Plc Macondo oil well rupture in 2010 that unleashed more than four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico was a deep-water blowout.
The remote Beaufort Sea is a section of the Arctic Ocean that spans the Canada-U.S. border. It comprises about 476,000 square kilometres (184,000 square miles) off the northern coasts of Alaska, and Canada's Yukon and Northwest territories, and until recently was packed with sea ice even in summer.
But as the Arctic gets warmer and the ice retreats, shipping lanes have opened up and oil companies are hungrily eyeing the 90 billion barrels of oil equivalent reserves that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates lie beneath the Arctic Ocean, amounting to almost three years of global demand.
Conoco Phillips and Statoil both have Arctic exploration programs but hazards in the inhospitable region are high. Royal Dutch Shell has not resumed its Arctic drilling program since a drilling rig ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska in 2012.
"Development in the Arctic is fraught with risks, and drilling for oil in the Beaufort Sea is exceptionally risky, especially in deep waters," said David Miller, president and chief execuive of WWF-Canada.
"This work will help ensure that we all can see how even minor spills can have major impacts, and that these potential consequences are fully considered in planning decisions."
(Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by Peter Galloway)