Earlier this year, the Ottawa and Manitoba governments announced C$4 million in funding for research focused on improving Arctic oil spill response by Canadian operators and agencies. While programs to identify and handle such events have been honed over the past several decades, this funding sheds light on an often misunderstood (or in some cases, deliberately misrepresented) component of Arctic development: spill response and prevention.
Portrayed in popular culture as an unexplored, uninhabited wilderness, research and development in the Arctic has taken place for years. In addition to thousands of years of traditional knowledge from the region’s indigenous peoples, the U.S. Geological Survey first conducted surveys of the Arctic in 1898.
Since then, research into the Arctic’s flora and fauna has been conducted by government programs charged with understanding the effects of Arctic oil and gas activities on the local environment. For example, when deciding to open the Arctic for offshore oil and gas development in 1973, the Department of Interior created the Alaska Environmental Studies Program in order to understand and monitor the region’s environment and inform leasing decisions. To date, the program has funded more than $475 million in Arctic research which has provided information on 25 different lease sales, generating roughly $9.5 billion for the U.S. Treasury.
Other agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have also conducted research into understanding the Arctic and possible impacts of Arctic development. Within NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, the agency has studied spill response and mitigation offshore since 1976. In Alaska specifically, NOAA developed a computer modelling tool, the Environmental Response Management Application, to better improve recognition and response in case of an offshore event. This tool integrates data on various environmental factors, such as weather or concentration of sea ice, with radar technology and point of interest locations (ports, pipelines, etc.) to improve communication and coordination among responders.
Coupled with government led research, the oil and gas industry has invested substantial time and money into both understanding the potential influence of activities on the environment as well as prevention and response programs. For example, in 2012 Arctic operators published a joint monitoring report focused on the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The report provided a significant overview of the potential effects of oil and gas development on marine mammals and subsistence activities in the Arctic Ocean.
This report was part of a larger effort initiated in 2012 by oil and gas operators to collaborate on Arctic oil spill capabilities. Named the Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology Joint Industry Programme, or the JIP, the program has been vital in researching, understanding and improving spill response in the Arctic. With each member contributing extensive research and knowledge, the JIP conducted a comprehensive literature review of over 960 research papers on oil spill response techniques and environmental effects of oil.
Moreover, the JIP continues to conduct research regarding oil spill response and mitigation. Focusing on six main areas of research, the program has expanded industry knowledge on potential dispersants, environmental effects, advanced modelling of potential events, remote sensing and detection, in situ burning, and techniques in recovering oil following an event. Additionally, Arctic field testing conducted in these areas is used to supplement research to ensure the most accurate understanding of how Arctic conditions will affect spill response techniques and technology.
Despite the media’s prevailing narrative, the substantial amount of research conducted in the Arctic shows the region far from unexplored. More importantly, with decades of study on possible environmental effects and spill remediation between government agencies and industry, in the event of a spill, Arctic stakeholders are well equipped and well prepared.