What We Know About the Arctic: More Than You Might Think

April 18, 2016 in Blog

A recent paper by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) claims that effective strategies for cleaning up oil spills in the Arctic “have yet to be developed” and that “little is known about the effects of oil spills on species that are unique to the Arctic, particularly species’ abilities to thrive in a cold environment.”

In echoing a popular misconception perpetuated by environmental activists that the Arctic is an unexplored wilderness frontier, it ignores decades of research and in-depth scientific investigation which have have informed and advanced our preparedness to respond to oil spills.

Here’s what the study fails to mention.

“Substantial Volumes of Information” exist on Arctic Oil Spill Response

As part of an ongoing initiative, researchers participating in the Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology Joint Industry Program (JIP) conducted a literature review of over 960 papers which examined the environmental effects of oil and oil-spill response techniques in the Arctic. As JIP program manager Joe Mullin told Rigzone, it became clear that “contrary to popular belief, substantial volumes of information existed on the topic.”

While the CRS report claimed that exploration of the effects of oil spills on Arctic environments and species was untrodden territory, the JIP literature review in fact showed that the subject has been studied extensively in recent years. As the 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.”

JIP researchers also warn that preconceptions about the sensitivity of Arctic species to oil are “incorrect”, complicating 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.”

Long History of Arctic Research

In addition to tapping the knowledge of Arctic species, habitats, migratory patterns and ice movement that natives have built up from living in the Arctic since 6000 B.C. to 2000 B.C., the U.S. government began conducting research in the Arctic as far back as the nineteenth century. For example, in 1898 the U.S. Geological Survey started collecting geological and botanical information, followed subsequently by the Outer Continental Shelf Assessment Program in 1975, which provided a crucial basis for predicting and mitigating potential impacts of offshore development.

Meanwhile 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, while the Bureau of Ocean Management develops and manages ongoing scientific research to inform the federal offshore leasing program.

In addition to research managed by the federal government, the oil and gas industry has initiated significant amounts of research on the Arctic environment and, specifically, on Arctic oil spill response techniques. For more than 40 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, before using the findings to improve its response capabilities and Arctic operations.

The JIP for example, is an ongoing effort to enhance Arctic oil spill response capabilities through research projects covering six key areas: dispersants, environmental effects, trajectory modelling, remote sensing, mechanical recovery, and in situ burning.

As Arctic Energy Center spotlighted not too long ago, JIP researchers have begun to move from indoor laboratory tests to instead conduct experiments in sea ice and seawater at Van MijenFjorden in Svea, Norway, in order to examine how Arctic marine life – including ice algae, juvenile fish, and zooplankton – respond to treated and untreated oil in frozen and melting ice, and how treated oil behaves in ice.

In these experiments, the researchers observed that microorganisms helped with the degradation of both treated and untreated oil in the Arctic. These microorganisms fed on oil, treating it as a food source, and helped “get rid of the contaminants”. A key finding of the report concluded,

“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.”

Robust Prevention Measures

Ultimately the best protection against oil spills is prevention, which begins with proper well design that contains at least two barriers – and typically more – against any possible hazard. Wells are designed and 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. A key measure is the blowout preventer (BOP), which is designed to monitor, seal, and control the well and prevent an uncontrolled event. To ensure redundant capabilities, BOPs contain multiple response mechanisms and backups – three or more for a surface BOP and five or more for a subsea BOP. Bureau of Safety and Environment Enforcement (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.

Oil Spill Response Preparedness

In addition to redundant preventative measures which are in place, operators have to demonstrate that they are equipped to respond in the event of an oil spill in their Oil Spill Response Plans (OSRP), which they are required to submit to the BSEE for review and approval. OSRPs include the Worst Case Discharge scenario, which details a multifaceted response and rehabilitation strategy that takes into account proximity to sensitive resources, estimated discharge volume and oil characteristics.

Such a strategy might include mechanical containment and recovery equipment like skimmers and booms 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.

Locals Weigh In

If the industry’s research, preventative infrastructure and spill response planning are not enough to demonstrate the high level of preparedness in place, perhaps the ultimate testimony comes from local Alaskans, those most affected in the event of a spill.

Paul Fuhs, former mayor of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, has said,

 “Yes, there is risk to any endeavor such as this, but let’s remember that we have been drilling in ice covered waters in similar depths for over 40 years in Cook Inlet without ever having a major incident. And the regulations for drilling in the Arctic are even stricter.”

Similarly, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), which represents 12,000 Iñupiat Eskimo shareholders, has testified in Congress that the oil and gas industry has “shown it is capable of working safely and effectively in ice-covered waters,” that “our understanding of the region is quite sophisticated,” and that “misstating the risks [of Arctic drilling] overshadows the fact…that it is possible to conduct responsible oil and gas development activities on the Arctic OCS”:

In Short

To be sure there is still much to learn about the Arctic – as with all other areas of scientific research. But this should not minimize the major strides in scientific knowledge that the industry and its partners have made in recent decades, strides that have improved the our understanding of Arctic conditions, enhanced our preparedness to respond in adverse conditions and reassured local Alaskans of our ability to operate safely and responsibly in the Arctic.

It is vital that the Congressional Research Service, and any other organization studying the area, acknowledge this body of research when describing the empirical foundations which underpin any activity in the Arctic.