The growing concern about Arctic oil spills

New report highlights lack of preparation and gaps in understanding impacts.

 

Standing on the snowy  shore of the Bering Sea in the village of Gambell, Alaska (population 681) on a blindingly bright but frigid day, I watched skiffs load and launch for the first whale hunt of 2014. Ice piled high along the shoreline and the horizon was rimmed with sea ice beyond the open water. A cluster of snow-machines was parked above the beach as boat crews arrived and families and dogs watched the action. Life centers on the ocean here so it’s appalling to imagine what would happen if this community that sits on the western edge of St. Lawrence Island were to find itself beset by an oil spill.

The residents of Gambell rely on the ocean for hunting and fishing – for walrus, whale, seal, and crab, among other species – as does the similarly tiny village of Savoonga, the island’s only other community. Alaska’s mainland coast is dotted with similar Native Alaskan communities. The ocean provides the mainstay of family meals, culture and often, livelihoods. Most of these villages are inaccessible by road. Most have no ports, harbors or docks. But as Arctic sea ice continues to decline, the prospect of commercial activity in Arctic marine waters has increased. With it comes growing concern about the risk of oil spills, whether from ship or fuel tanker accidents or offshore oil and gas extraction.

Given the unique sensitivity of the Arctic environment, its extreme weather, geographic conditions and lack of infrastructure, responding to an oil spill in the Arctic poses even greater challenges than those faced elsewhere. To begin to address these issues, the US National Academy of Sciences  has just produced a report, Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Environment, undertaken at the request of the American Petroleum Institute (API), US Arctic Research Commission, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, US Coast Guard, Marine Mammal Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  and the Oil Spill Recovery Institute. The report clearly describes the enormous logistical difficulties of an Arctic oil spill response and the vulnerability of Arctic ecosystems, species and human communities to both the oil itself and what would have to be done to contain and remove it.

While new offshore Arctic drilling is now on hold, ship traffic has already increased. Concern about its impacts was mentioned throughout my recent visit to remote Alaskan communities like Gambell. “There’s oil and gas development in the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea we’re watching. With the northern sea route and Northwest Passage opening, we’ve never seen so many cargo ships,” George Noongwook, chairman of the Alaska Whaling Commission, told me on a snowy April morning in Savoonga.

Meanwhile, as the NAS report notes, the toxic legacy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Shell drilling rig, the Kulluk, that went adrift in the Gulf of Alaska last year are reminders that accidents do happen.

The report highlights the many existing scientific research gaps in understanding how an oil spill would affect Arctic marine and coastal environments and how oil spill response techniques – booms, chemical dispersants and in situ burning among them – would work in or impact those ecosystems.  Moving sea ice, cold, reduced visibility, highly variable weather and marine waters that provide unique habitat to scores of species –including walrus, whales, seals, rare sea birds and Arctic invertebrates – are among the conditions that any response would have to deal with. That communities potentially directly affected by an Arctic oil spill rely on this wildlife further complicates potential spill or response impacts.

The report notes the need for greatly improved real-time monitoring of ship traffic, and of ocean and sea ice conditions.  Historical data on conditions is inadequate, particularly when seasonal and climate-change related variability are factored in. The past few years have seen unusual winds, storms and precipitation that have produced unexpected ice conditions. These are changing wildlife movements and, in many places, disrupting long-relied on ice conditions, essential for access to hunting and fishing.

At least as daunting are the logistical difficulties of mounting an oil spill response in remote Arctic coastal communities with limited transportation, commercial and communications infrastructure. Right now, these communities have few if any facilities to store equipment, house or feed outside response crews. The report recommends training local response teams but notes that there is “presently no funding mechanism to provide for development, deployment and maintenance” of infrastructure needed for an oil spill response. It also recommends greater coordination with Russia and Canada.

Former science director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council Phil Mundy called the report “a wake up call.”

This “report confirms that we are woefully unprepared for a disaster like the Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon in the US Arctic. Without major investments in infrastructure and research, we will remain woefully unprepared for a large oil spill into the foreseeable future,” said Oceana’s Arctic Campaign Manager and Senior Scientist, Chris Krenz.

Kevin Harun, Arctic Program Director for the California-based NGO, Pacific Environment, criticized the report for its lack of preventative recommendations. Among those Harun suggests is a ban on heavy fuel oils use by ships transiting the Arctic. This, Harun explains, would lessen the risk of catastrophic spills and is a measure being considered by the Polar Code, a set of Arctic shipping rules now being developed by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization.

API struck a more optimistic note. “We’re encouraged by the report’s emphasis on the need for the full toolbox of spill response technologies to be available in the event of an incident, because – as the report says – no single technique can be guaranteed to work in all situations,” said API spokesman Brian Straessle.

Some training and preparedness discussions have been held in and with Alaskan coastal communities by NOAA, the Coast Guard, oil companies and other organizations. Information resources are also being developed but as the NAS report acknowledges, little is yet in place on the ground.

“If a spill occurred today it would be mayhem,” said Krenz.

Elizabeth Grossman is a contributor to High Country News. Her latest book is Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry. Photographs 1-5 taken by the author near the shore of the Bering Sea in the village of Gambell, Alaska. Photograph 6 was taken in Savoonga, Alaska.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...