Arctic Spill “Response Gap” Under the Microscope

Joseph Keefe
Monday, June 13, 2011
Photo credit: D. Dickins

Make no mistake about it: the Arctic is open for business. The cumulative environmental footprint of oil exploration outfits, merchant shipping, mining, eco-tourism and the cruise ship trades is thus far minor, but the potential for an exponential increase in commerce – especially if the climate trends now affecting the region continue – is seemingly limitless. For the maritime industry, the down side to this is as big as the most promising business opportunity to come along in decades. 


The utility of a Northern Sea Route that follows the Siberian coastline, producing impressive time and fuel savings, a reduced emissions footprint, and elimination of canal transit fees for shippers moving goods between Europe and Asia has already been proven. Also being discussed for similar purposes is the exploitation of the Northwest Passage. Some are even trumpeting the route as a way to avoid the risk of piracy.


As Arctic traffic begins to grow, the lack of preparedness to support such an influx is becoming apparent. Underscoring the political reaction to last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the oceanographer for the U.S. Navy recently stated that only a matter of luck had thus far prevented a “Titanic-scale disaster”.  As the rapidly melting ice converges on the escalating price of oil and other precious commodities, that luck may be quickly running out.


Commerce in that Arctic is yesterday’s news. Unfortunately, it will also yield tomorrow’s tragic headlines unless the international community can gear up to (a.) slow the growth of commerce to reflect the region’s ability to handle a potential crisis, and (b.) rapidly build spill response capability and technology in the region. Both efforts – undoubtedly tall orders – are well underway in a number of different venues.

Politics, Risk & Sovereignty, too
The extent of Arctic sea ice reached a historical low in 2007 and some scientists predict ice-free Arctic seasons within a decade and a perennially ice-free region in the late summer by the late 2030s. According to Naval Affairs Specialist Ronald O’Rourke, at least “five Arctic coastal states – the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark (Greenland is a territory) – are in the process of preparing Arctic territorial claims for submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The Russian claim to the underwater Lomonosov Ridge – also claimed by Canada and Denmark – would grant Russia nearly one half of the Arctic area.” O’Rourke’s report to the U.S. Congress, entitled “Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress,”  details other “unresolved Arctic territorial disputes,” most of which will be debated at a meeting in 2013.


The United States also has critical energy and security interests in the region. As such, the Bush Administration released in January 2009 a National Security Presidential Directive 66/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 25 (NSPD 66/HSPD 25), establishing new U.S. policy for the Arctic region. Former USCG Commandant Thad Allen has since warned that the U.S. does not have enough operational icebreakers and equipment to handle an oil spill in Alaskan waters. Today, two of the Coast Guard’s three polar icebreakers sit in layup and prospects for their repair or replacements has been tied up in a political turf war because icebreaker funding is considered a National Science Foundation appropriation.


Current international guidelines for ships operating in Arctic waters are being updated, with a targeted completion date of 2010. Also at issue is the Northwest Passage which, although contained in Canadian territory, is being treated as an international strait by others. Canada last year moved preemptively to require all traffic to report their movements. The decision – one which underscores the need for caution and safety improvements – was widely criticized by shipping organizations and various flag states.


O’Rourke’s report to Congress also addresses the existing framework for international governance of maritime operations in the Arctic region. He asserts that what is currently in place is not legally binding, adding, “…the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) and other International Maritime Organization (IMO) conventions include provisions regarding ships in icy waters, the provisions are not specific to the polar regions.” The IMO has Guidelines for Ships Operating in Arctic, but these are considered inadequate by many flag states. Finally, a NOAA report pans the non-binding IMO provisions as “inconsistent with the hazards of Arctic navigation and the potential for environmental damage from such an incident.”


As the IMO seeks to establish a new Polar Code and ship classification societies coordinate ice rules for ships, the need for pollution response capabilities for the Arctic is a clear vulnerability. The lack of salvage capabilities, repair yards and navigational aids is an immediate concern, not only to regulators, but also by insurers scrambling to meet the rising demand for cover. Exacerbating the situation is the claim by the International Hydrographic Organization that at little as 10 percent of Arctic waters were adequately charted. The current situation points to a scenario of not if, but “when” the first really big environmental disaster will strike in the Arctic.

Spill Response: Realities & Challenges
How much do we really have to worry about? Dagmar Schmidt Etkin of Environmental Research Consulting, in her report entitled 40-Year Analysis of US Oil Spillage Rates, says, “Forty years after the 1969 Santa Barbara, California, well blowout that was a major impetus for the US environmental movement, and twenty years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which spurred regulatory changes and industry initiatives to prevent oil spills, a comprehensive analysis of US spillage rates shows significant progress in reducing spills.” In the wake of that report, she also acknowledges the now-infamous Deepwater Horizon spill skews the data. She adds, “You'd need to add in another 4.9 million barrels of oil, though that is just a guess right now.”


Etkin’s report describes how the average annual total petroleum industry spillage has decreased consistently over the last 40 years. The report says, in part, “Seventy-seven percent less oil is spilling since the 1970s and 46% less since the decade previous to the last decade.” Until Deepwater Horizon that is.

Response time is the critical factor during an oil spill recovery operation because, with each passing minute, spilled product becomes more difficult to contain, and recover and track. In polar or icy conditions, oil can also migrate and become mixed with ice.


Fast response in the Arctic cold weather conditions presents logistical challenges because of the lack of existing infrastructure from which to launch these efforts. This is referred to as “the response gap.” In Ronald O’Rourke’s report to Congress, response gap is defined as the period of time in which oil spill response activities would be unsafe or infeasible. Although O’Rourke also says that the response gap in the Arctic has not been quantified, for northern latitudes, it is likely to be higher due to extreme weather conditions. And, a recent NOAA report concluded that “there is a clear need for emergency response equipment for SAR [search and rescue] and pollution response throughout the Arctic.”

In a 2008 report addressing oil spills and response in the Aleutian Islands, the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences reported, “The past 20 years of data on response to spills in the Aleutians has also shown that almost no oil has been recovered during events where attempts have been made by the responsible parties or government agencies, and that in many cases, weather and other conditions have prevented any response at all.” Beyond this, the Coast Guard’s 17th District commander (Alaska) said in 2008, “We are not prepared for a major oil spill in the Arctic environment. The Coast Guard has no offshore response capability in Northern or Western Alaska and we only dimly understand the science of recovering oil in broken ice.”

Answering the Call: Reducing the Response “Gap”
As human and industrial activities in the region increase, private industry and governments are more seriously addressing the risk of oil pollution, formulating policy and initiating research and development (R&D) efforts. In February, the Arctic Technology Conference (ATC) was held in Houston. The conference (an OTC event) addressed cutting-edge technologies and innovative practices needed for exploration and production in the Arctic. It also provided a venue for those engaged in the science of fighting pollution and responding to spills in the Arctic environment. Numerous papers were presented at the Conference and a sampling of efforts now underway to respond to those events when they do occur is included in this article.

Forward Thinking – Looking Back
Perhaps the most interesting of all the oil spill research papers presented at ATC was that given by David Dickens. Although some conference presenters would have us believe that despite all of the ongoing research, the maritime and oil industries have a long way to go to catch up in terms of response capabilities in Arctic waters, Dickens paints a somewhat rosier picture. He also couldn’t agree less with Retired Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, who recently insisted, “The R&D done in the wake of EXXON VALDEZ was what I call tanker-centric. Along the way, we’ve lost track of the fact that the oil drilling industry had gone deep offshore.”


Dickins, a veteran of many years of oil spill research and testing, says that the current situation isn’t as dire as it first looks and that the real issues involve regulatory roadblocks to developing new technologies. “Actually, our knowledge base is quite high – 40 years worth. Some of most important work is being done overseas in Canada and Norway because the United States makes it so difficult to obtain permits to conduct experiments.” He also insists that the call for massive amounts of infrastructure to support oil spill response is overblown. “Infrastructure not the answer – we don’t need tens of thousands of folks and associated infrastructure to fight spills. We need to approach the response to spills in more innovative ways.”


Finally, Dickins asserts that many of the variables particular to attacking spills in Arctic waters can actually be used to the advantage of responders. Among these, he points to the fact that slower evaporation rates also allow for more oil to be recovered. That oil that gets trapped in ice provides the extra time to gather that oil, as well as preventing it from eventually reaching land.


The need to better prepare for the disaster that will eventually come in Arctic is undeniable. But, more is being done than meets the eye and a tremendous amount of work has already been done. Bringing that together to catch up with the rush to exploit previously unreachable trade routes and regions will take local and international cooperation. That said – and when it comes to Arctic spill response – we’re not necessarily out in the cold anymore.

(As published in the Q2 edition of Maritime Professional. Photo credit: D. Dickins)

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