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.

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