Myth vs. Fact: Oil Spills in the Arctic: Research, Response, Prevention

May 31, 2016 in Blog

Even though the Arctic is often romanticized in the media and popular culture as an untrodden frontier, Alaska’s Iñupiat community has called the region home for thousands of years, and the government and industry alike have spearheaded research initiatives on the Arctic for more than a century. The oil and gas industry’s research on the behavior of oil, specifically, has informed oil spill prevention and response tools, enhancing the industry’s ability to respond in adverse conditions. Below, Arctic Energy Center takes a look at some of the popular misconceptions about the Arctic – and why they are wrong.

Myth: We don’t know enough about the Arctic environment, period.

The first researchers of the Arctic environment are the Iñupiat (Alaska Natives), who have lived in the region – and studied Arctic species, habitats, migratory patterns, and ice movement – since 6000 B.C. to 2000 B.C. In the late nineteenth century, the U.S. Geological Survey started collecting geological and botanical information in the Arctic, and due to the growing interest in oil exploration in the Arctic, the federal government initiated the Outer Continental Shelf Assessment Program in 1975, which provided a crucial basis for predicting and mitigating potential impacts of offshore development. Studies that specifically investigated the effects of offshore oil and gas activities on birds and mammals have been conducted in northern Alaskan waters since the mid-1970s, and the Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM) develops and manages ongoing scientific research on the Arctic environment to inform the federal offshore leasing program. Additionally, the oil and gas industry has funded much of the effort behind refining and expanding our understanding of the Arctic environment over the past few decades – more on that below.

Myth: We don’t know enough about the Arctic to clean up oil spills.

In addition to research managed by the federal government, the oil and gas industry has spearheaded research programs on the Arctic environment and, specifically, on Arctic oil spill response techniques. For more than 50 years, the industry has worked closely with federal agencies, indigenous people, local residents, and other stakeholders on oil spill response research, conducting experimental studies in laboratories, test tanks, and field trials in the U.S., Canada, Scandinavia, and using those findings to improve its response capabilities and Arctic operations.

To capture the breadth of the knowledge on the Arctic that already exists, the Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology Joint Industry Program (JIP), a collaborative effort launched in 2012 by members of the international oil and gas industry to enhance Arctic oil-spill capabilities, conducted an extensive literature review of over 960 papers that investigated the environmental effects of oil and oil-spill response techniques in the Arctic and found:

“Many recent studies have concentrated on understanding the influence of these harsh environmental conditions on the relative sensitivity of Arctic species to additional stressors, the success and rates of microbial degradation of oil compounds, and more recently the resilience of Arctic populations to recover from responses to those stressors.”

In short, as JIP program manager Joe Mullin told Rigzone, “[C]ontrary to popular belief, substantial volumes of information existed on the topic.”

Myth: The presence of ice in the Arctic makes cleaning up oil spills more difficult.

Arctic conditions – characterized by ice, snow, and cold temperatures – could actually help oil spill response efforts in some circumstances by limiting the spread of spilled oil. In the unlikely event of an oil spill in the Arctic, some types of ice – and its natural ridges and blocks – could act as natural barriers that prevent oil from spreading, aided by the cold temperatures that would also slow the spreading.

By keeping the oil contained and confined, ice, snow, and cold temperatures could widen the window of opportunity for effective oil spill response techniques, including recovery, dispersants, and in-situ burning.

That said, Arctic drilling is typically conducted in open water conditions – in other words, when the water is largely, if not entirely, free of ice. Oil spills in those conditions could be cleaned up using oil spill response techniques that have been tested and successfully implemented in offshore operations around the world for decades.

Myth: The oil and gas industry is not prepared to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic.

The substantial research conducted thus far by industry and government alike on how oil behaves in ice has helped the industry develop – and tailor to the Arctic environment – a wide array of containment options that have been successfully implemented around the world under a variety of conditions. These options include mechanical containment and recovery equipment, such as skimmers and booms that are designed to remove oil from the surface of water; dispersants, which enhance the biodegradation of oil by Arctic microorganisms; and controlled in-situ burning, a technique of burning oil on the sea surface that has been safely and successfully used over the past 40 years.

Not only does the industry have to be sufficiently prepared to respond to an oil spill, but companies operating in the Arctic are held accountable by regulations that require them to demonstrate to federal regulators that they are able to do just that. Operators have to submit Oil Spill Response Plans (OSRP) to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) for review and approval. OSRPs not only outline how operators are equipped to respond in the event of an oil spill, but they also specify the Worst Case Discharge scenario, which details a multifaceted response and rehabilitation strategy the company would use in response, which takes into account proximity to sensitive resources, estimated discharge volume and oil characteristics.

Myth: Arctic species are especially vulnerable to an oil spill.

Studies that specifically investigated the effects of offshore oil and gas activities on marine and coastal birds and mammals have been conducted in northern Alaskan waters since the mid-1970s, and researchers have concluded that the popular assumption that the assumption that Arctic species are more sensitive to oil than non-Arctic species is “incorrect” (pg. 7).

A recent JIP report on the environmental effects of oil and oil spill response technologies in the Arctic also found that Arctic species “are not more sensitive” to oil than non-Arctic species:

“There is evidence that arctic species are not more sensitive to dispersed oil than non-arctic species and that they react to dispersed oil exposure in the same way as temperate species do.”

In fact, Arctic species could help with oil spill response: In an experiment that was conducted in sea ice and seawater at Van MijenFjorden, Svea, Norway, researchers examined how Arctic marine life, including ice algae, juvenile fish, and zooplankton, responded to treated and untreated oil from winter to summer – in frozen and melting ice. The researchers observed that microorganisms actually helped with the degradation of oil by treating it as a food source and thereby helping “get rid of the contaminants,” in the words of Mathijs Smit, chairman of JIP’s Environmental Effects Technical Working Group.

Myth: The only way to prevent an oil spill is by not drilling at all.

In an iterative process that continues today, the oil and gas industry has spent decades developing and refining a suite of robust oil spill prevention measures to minimize the risk of a spill through redundant mechanisms.

As an example, proper well design contains at least two barriers – and typically more – against any possible hazard, and wells must be constructed in strict accordance with regulations and industry best practices, as codified in American Petroleum Institute/International Organization for Standardization standards.

Furthermore, regulators have recently instituted new safeguards to “protect the environment beyond what has ever existed before,” including adopting new standards for well design, casing, and cementing. Another key prevention measure is the blowout preventer (BOP), which is designed to monitor, seal, and control the well and prevent an uncontrolled event. For redundancy, BOPs contain multiple response mechanisms and backups – three or more for a surface BOP and five or more for a subsea BOP. And to ensure that BOPs remain operational during the lifetime of a well, BSEE regulations stipulate weekly function tests for the BOP stacks and pressure tests every 14 days for subsea BOPs and every 21 days for surface BOPs.

Myth: There is a 75 percent chance of an oil spill in the Arctic.

It is precisely because of the industry’s host of robust oil spill prevention mechanisms that makes large oil spills highly unlikely, as federal regulators have emphasized. In fact, BOEM went to great lengths to dispel the misinformation surrounding the potential for spills, explaining in a factsheet:

“Even in BOEM’s hypothetical scenario, the data suggest that a large spill in the exploration phase is very unlikely.”

Keeping in mind that BOEM’s definition of “large” oil spills are spills that exceed 1,000 barrels, the agency emphasized,

“[T]he spills modeled by BOEM are very unlikely to be the catastrophic historical events one might think of when we think of oil spills. For historical perspective, the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill is estimated to have been from 257,000 to 750,000 barrels; the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill is thought to have been 3.19 million barrels.” 

In Short

The wealth of scientific insight on the Arctic built up over the past decades and indeed centuries has equipped the oil and gas industry not only with the knowledge and awareness of the Arctic environment, but also the tools and methods that it could use to prevent and respond to oil spills in Arctic conditions. So, the Arctic is an unexplored, unknown frontier? No, that’s just a myth.