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
  • SPORTING COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    To advance our mission, we are seeking a full-time Sporting Communications Coordinator to join our team, preferably in Montana or Colorado. (Due to COVID-19 all...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor, Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • ANCESTRAL LANDS ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGER
    Starting Salary: Grade C, $19.00 to 24.00 per/hour Location: Albuquerque or Gallup, NM Status: Full-Time, Non-Exempt Benefit Eligible: Full Benefits Eligible per Personnel Policies Program...
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...