On the fifth anniversary of one of the worst offshore oil spills in history, the wildlife and people of the Gulf coast are still recovering. Today, companies are exploring far more dangerous waters in the Arctic, with no proven technology to respond to a spill.
Five years ago, in clear weather and temperate seas, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded. Despite the region’s excellent search and rescue infrastructure, eleven people were killed, and dozens more injured. As more than two hundred million gallons of oil (757 million litres) spilled over 89 days, 40,000 people took part in the response effort. Fisheries in the region lost billions of dollars. The oil – and dispersants used in response – made many Gulf residents sick, and played a role the death of cold-water corals, ongoing illness in dolphins, and genetic defects in fish. Even today, the full extent of the damage on the Gulf’s wildlife, economy and people is unknown.
What if it happened in the Arctic?
As sea ice melts, petroleum companies are actively exploring offshore drilling possibilities in far more dangerous waters than the Gulf Sea. Arctic oil projects face frequent storms, thick and drifting ice, a rushed drilling season, and limited infrastructure. No company has demonstrated the ability to adequately control or clean up a spill in ice-covered waters.
Despite the enormous risk, Arctic nations are moving ahead with offshore oil. Norway has recently approved new oil leases at the very edge of the sea ice. In the United States, Shell plans to explore off Alaska’s northwest coast. Russia is actively developing the continental shelf in the Barents Sea. Given the risky nature of drilling there and Russia’s plans to expand Arctic offshore exploration, WWF Russia is calling on its government to institute a 10 year moratorium on new offshore oil projects.
These national projects have international implications. Oil spill projections show that Arctic spills can quickly cross national boundaries, threatening fisheries, subsistence hunting, and the well-being of Arctic communities.
Few full scale oil spill exercises
To date, there have been few full-scale Arctic oil response exercises. WWF Marine Conservation Officer Sanna Kuningas participated in one such exercise this month near Kemi, Finland. The goal was to test alert systems and mechanical oil recovery equipment in ice conditions.
Weather conditions during the exercise were excellent: minus 5 degrees Celsius, light wind and clear skies, on 30-50 cm of ice. “The exercise ran smoothly, but many questions remained unanswered,” said Kuningas. “Using the skimmers did not seem efficient. The skimmers only managed to sweep the upper layer of the broken ice. Many observers wondered how things would go if the weather and ice conditions were more severe.”
Weather and sea conditions in the high Arctic can be much more challenging compared to the light winds and comfortable temperature during the exercise. Also the thicker, often unpredictably present ice and especially Arctic multi-year ice would introduce much greater challenges and limitations, not to even mention the remoteness of the high Arctic area with unsolved logistical and infrastructure questions of oil spill response.
Even during this carefully planned exercise, the mechanical skimmer specifically designed for Arctic conditions was unavailable – icebreaker crews were on strike.
The available options to clean a spill on ice are not ideal. “Mechanical oil recovery is the least environmentally damaging clean-up technique, but the efficiency of the technique is questionable.” said Kuningas. “On-site burning is another option, but it releases particulate matter and black carbon that further amplifies melting of Arctic ice and snow. Dispersants that break apart the oil have toxic effects that are still being felt in the Gulf – we don’t want to repeat that experiment in the Arctic.”
Alternatives to Arctic oil
“The Deepwater spill decimated local wildlife, communities and economies”, said Margaret Williams, head of the WWF-United States Arctic Program. “We cannot allow that to happen in the Arctic or anywhere else.”
At minimum, governments should permanently protect ecologically valuable areas from oil and gas, taking into account the immense international range of a spill’s effects. WWF would like to see protection for two key fisheries in particular, the Lofoten and Vesteraalen islands of coastal Norway, and the West Kamchatka Shelf in Russia.
In the longer term, WWF is calling on governments to transition away from fossil fuels entirely. A WWF report shows that the world’s energy needs could be met entirely by renewable energy by 2050.