The University of Alaska Fairbanks is planning the formation of a science and technology center for oil spill prevention and preparedness in the Arctic, Mark Myers, vice chancellor for research at UAF, told Petroleum News June 15.
While the various challenges associated with oil spill risks present the biggest single hurdle to moving forward with oil and gas development in the Arctic offshore, UAF is in a unique position to research, develop and coordinate a wide range of state-of-the-art technologies for addressing the particular challenges that the Arctic presents, Myers said.
"This is something where the university can really contribute," Myers said.
With challenges that include severe winter weather, sea ice, a scarcity of ice-capable ships, the lack of a deepwater port, a lack of a logistical support infrastructure and a shortage of environmental information, the Arctic offshore would present a very different oil spill response situation from a region such as the Gulf of Mexico, Myers said.
There is also a need to understand how the impacts of climate change on the Arctic environment affect oil spill response strategies, he said.
Myers was the director of Alaska's Division of Oil and Gas under governors Tony Knowles and Frank Murkowski, and he led the U.S. Geological Survey between mid-2006 and early 2009.
The new center would work with stakeholders and experts in Arctic oil spill prevention and research to monitor oil spill technologies being researched, developed and implemented, and to identify gaps in Arctic oil spill knowledge.
The center would help fill those gaps by sponsoring research into Arctic oil spill related technologies.
The center could assemble and feed information to organizations responsible for oil spill response operations, said Nettie LaBelle-Hamer, UAF associate vice chancellor of research, who will be the director of the new center.
UAF is in the process of negotiating potential partnerships with several organizations that have major roles in Arctic oil spill research, including oil companies; NOAA; the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement; the U.S. Bureau of Land Management; and the North Slope Borough.
The university has also been talking to North Slope oil spill response co-op Alaska Clean Seas, to the Sound Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Cordova, and to SINTEF, the Norway-based consortium of companies involved in offshore Arctic oil spill response research, Myers said.
"We have really stepped out to make sure that we aren't doing this on our own, that we're doing this with partners," Myers said.
UAF is making a pre-proposal to the National Science Foundation, seeking funding of $5 million per year to support the new center, and will also seek funding from other partners.
Rather than duplicating research already in progress on traditional oil spill response technologies such as oil skimmers and booms, the new center will particularly focus on new, small-scale technologies that have the potential to transform people's abilities to deal with Arctic oil spill challenges, Myers said.
Example technologies include unmanned aerial vehicles with optical, infrared, radar and other sensing systems; unmanned underwater vehicles; surface radar systems with portable power supplies; and the remote sensing of ice conditions through cloud cover using radar technology.
Research could target issues such as gaining an understanding of water currents under sea ice, and questions about the potential impacts of spilled oil on the Arctic ecology.
And on the spill prevention front, the university's expertise in Arctic engineering can provide support in the design of oil and gas facilities capable of withstanding the onslaughts of the harsh Arctic environment, Myers said.
By ALAN BAILEY