Scientists funded by Shell and six other oil companies say that cleaning up oil spills in Arctic ice is in many respects easier than cleaning it from open water.
The reason, they said Tuesday, is that oil spilled in open water tends to spread out quickly over large areas and contaminate the shoreline. In contrast, recent testing in the Barents Sea above northern Europe has shown that ice can act as a natural blockade that traps the oil and gives responders more time to clean it up.
The researchers' preliminary findings conflict with the conventional wisdom about how spills in Arctic ice would be difficult, if not impossible, to clean up. Environmentalists cite botched spill cleanup experiments that occurred a decade ago in the Beaufort Sea. At the time, the state concluded that Prudhoe Bay oil field operator BP could not adequately clean spills in slushy water.
Shell says spill-response techniques have improved greatly since then and is trying to enlist Alaskans' support for offshore exploration in federal waters. The company spent more than $2 billion last year to acquire leases and is seeking state and federal permits to explore for oil next summer in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, which geologists say may hold vast amounts of oil and natural gas.
But several conservation groups and Arctic village governments have sued to block Shell's drilling, saying it could result in pollution or interfere with subsistence whale hunts.
Shell brought the oil industry-funded researchers, from the Norwegian nonprofit research institute SINTEF, to Anchorage this week to present findings from experiments they ran in the Barents Sea in May, the final major tests in a $12 million, five-year research effort ending next year. Shell invited state regulators, the Coast Guard, advocacy groups, Arctic village officials and others to the briefing Tuesday in downtown Anchorage.
The researchers said they discharged crude oil in broken and slushy ice off the northern coast of Norway. Though it isn't illegal here, such experiments have never been approved in U.S. waters.
Cumulatively, the researchers spilled 5,944 gallons of oil on the ice, according to an interim report on the tests.
In the various spill experiments, the scientists tested several cleanup techniques, including scraping it up with mechanical skimmers, burning oil surrounded by fireproof booms, and using chemical dispersants to force the oil to dilute to the point it can be eaten by micro-organisms.
The tests showed that all three of those techniques effectively remove most of the spilled oil, according to Stein Sorstrom, SINTEF's program coordinator.
Though the experimental spills were small in comparison to actual catastrophic oil spills around the globe, SÃ¸rstrÃ¸m said the test results provide reliable information that companies could use to estimate how much equipment is needed to clean up a larger spill.
Other tests involved detecting oil in the ice using radar-equipped aircraft and satellites, and deploying an oil-sniffing, short-legged hound.
Trained dogs in Norway can detect oil 5 kilometers away on a small patch of ice, Sorstrom said.
Unlike the other tests, the satellite tests did not work well, according to Sorstrom.
The study didn't look at the environmental impact of spills in the Arctic. In other industry-funded studies, SINTEF and some researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are still studying the potential toxic effects of oil on Arctic species.
Many people who attended the meeting said they feel the research is critical and were glad that Shell presented the meeting.
But one participant said the fact that the study was industry-funded raised concerns.
Others said it would have been better if more Alaskans had been invited to monitor the experiments or watch them.
"It would have been an opportunity for people concerned about (offshore oil drilling) to see this," said Mead Treadwell, chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.
Shell's Alaska spokesman, Curtis Smith, said this study involved "international players," but if the company gets permission to do such tests in Alaska, "we would certainly touch base and use input from Alaskans."
The mayor of the North Slope Borough is in favor of spill testing off Alaska's coast, said Harold Curran, the borough's chief administrative officer.
He added that it's premature to make conclusions about SINTEF's findings until its final report is published next year.
Some who attended the meeting said they remain deeply skeptical.
"This (research) does nothing to reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic oil spill," said Whit Sheard of Pacific Environment, one of several groups that has sued to block Shell exploration in the Arctic.
The six other oil companies that funded the spill research are BP, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, Statoil of Norway, Eni of Italy and Total of France.
Others involved include the U.S. Minerals Management Service, which oversees oil development in Arctic waters; Alaska Clean Seas, which responds to spills at the North Slope oil fields; Arctic Slope Regional Corp.; the Oil Spill Recovery Institute; a Norwegian government agency and researchers from universities in the United States and Norway.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.