Recent research by the Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology Joint Industry Program (JIP) has brought forth beneficial results in the organization’s quest to better understand oil spill response capabilities in Arctic climates. The JIP examined the effect of crude oil on marine life in the event of a spill, and preliminary findings “dispel the belief that Arctic species are more sensitive to oil and oil spill response techniques than non-Arctic species,” according to a researcher conducting the study. By developing a more nuanced understanding of how Arctic species behave, this study represents an encouraging contribution to the body of scientific knowledge (including over 2000 published papers and journals) and on oil spills and oil-spill response techniques.
Launched in 2012 by members of the international oil and gas industry, JIP is a collaborative effort to enhance Arctic oil-spill capabilities and expand industry knowledge of, and proficiency in, Arctic oil-spill response. In this latest round of research, which began last February, JIP researchers moved away from indoor laboratory settings and instead conducted experiments in sea ice and seawater at Van MijenFjorden, Svea, Norway. By doing so, the researchers aimed to see 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 – and how treated oil behaved in ice.
The researchers observed that microorganisms helped with the degradation of both treated and untreated oil in the Arctic. These microorganisms feed on oil, treating it as a food source, and help “get rid of the contaminants,” in the words of Mathijs Smit, chairman of the Environmental Effects Technical Working Group for the JIP. As stated in a key finding in the report, “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.”
Existing body of research
Before initiating the experiments, JIP researchers conducted an extensive literature review, weighing the findings of over 960 papers that investigated the environmental effects of oil and oil-spill response techniques in the Arctic. Joe Mullin, JIP program manager, told Rigzone, “[C]ontrary to popular belief, substantial volumes of information existed on the topic.”
In fact, a large body of research examining oil-spill response techniques specifically in Arctic settings already exists, as the literature review explains:
“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 light of the tendency of activist groups to make incorrect assertions about oil spills – for example, activist group WWF claims that “[m]arine ecosystems are particularly vulnerable” to spills – the literature also mentions that such faulty claims, often “proposed as facts,” complicate efforts to further public understanding of the subject:
“Several studies have been undertaken to address such concerns for different response measures; however, conflicting interpretations and conclusions impact stakeholders’ confidence. For example, the assumptions that dispersant treated oils are more toxic than undispersed oil, dispersants are more toxic than oil, dispersants reduce the ability of microbes to degrade oil, and Arctic species are more sensitive to oil than non-arctic species are incorrect although all of these assumptions may be proposed as facts by multiple stakeholders.”
Preventing spills from happening is of the utmost importance to the industry. That’s why oil and gas companies operating in the Arctic have a rigorous and robust oil spill prevention program in place, which must be approved by federal regulators before they commence drilling. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), for example, requires that each project proposal include an Oil Spill Response Plan, which the agency reviews “to ensure that the overall proposed strategy includes the necessary resources to deal with the anticipated worst case discharge in a given offshore region, including access to capping and containment equipment necessary to control a subsea blowout.” To drive the point home, BSEE Director Brian Salerno has said, “We are leaving no stone unturned to ensure operators have addressed all relevant risks.” Spill prevention programs are becoming even more robust and specialized as we develop a greater understanding of the Arctic habitat. Indeed, Arctic oil and gas development will continue to be a safe and responsible enterprise.