Federal report calls for more research on Arctic oil spills

Kyle Hopkins

A federal commission says more research is needed to prevent and clean up oil spills in the ice-covered waters surrounding Alaska and Canada.

The report, issued Tuesday by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, is framed around a simple question: Just what do governments and oil companies know about stopping a spill in the frozen Arctic?

After cataloging more than 200 research projects conducted by industry, government and others over the past 10 to 15 years, the commission is calling for a slew of new studies and policy changes.

The report says oil spill experiments and field trials are needed in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration needs more money for Arctic spill research and federal regulators need more time or more staff to review permits.

Among the areas demanding attention, according to Deputy Director Cheryl Rosa:

• Analysis that helps responders know how long it would take to get equipment to a spill site under difficult conditions such as ice-filled seas and foul weather.

• Research on the impact chemical dispersants might have on subsistence hunting and fishing activities.

• The economic and social impacts a spill would have on Alaska communities. What would a spill mean for villages that depend bowhead whaling on the North Slope, for example?

Former Alaska Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, chairwoman of he commission, presented the report Tuesday at the third biennial United States-Canada Northern Oil and Gas Research Forum. The meeting continues through Thursday at the Anchorage Hilton.

The report comes as Shell Oil pursues Arctic exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Environmental groups and some Alaska Native groups have opposed offshore drilling in Alaska saying that oil and gas producers are ill-equipped to handle a spill in the Arctic.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said that critics of offshore drilling in Alaska use the call for additional research as an argument for making e the projects off limits but fail to acknowledge decades of prior research.

"Fortunately, we are gathering more scientific data than ever as a result of renewed interest in the Arctic," Smith wrote in an email Tuesday. "Currently, either through direct funding or through government funding, oil and gas interest in the Alaska Arctic is driving approximately 80 percent of the research in the US Arctic offshore."

How much research is being conducted on Arctic oil spill response depends on who you ask, said John Farrell, executive director for the commission.

"Some people think that nothing's been done, and that's clearly wrong. There has been work done in a variety of areas by a number of organizations over a number of years," Farrell said.

"But if you look at it in terms of how much money has been spent on this topic, it's really, really small," he said.

Citing a 2011 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, the commission says that a total of $164 million was spent on oil spill research between 2000 and 2010. Maybe 10 percent of that research was on Arctic spills, Farrell said.

The commission's report says those numbers are dwarfed by the amount of money spent on lease sales in the Chukchi Sea -- $2.7 billion in 2008 -- and by the $4.5 billion that the commission says Shell has spent on leasing costs and in preparation to explore lease holdings in the Chukchi and Beaufort.

Smith, the Shell spokesman, said the company contributed directly to some of the research highlighted in the Arctic Research Commission report, such as work by SINTEF, the Norway-based consortium of companies involved in offshore Arctic oil spill response research, to better understand the fate of oil spilled in Arctic conditions.

Shipping traffic also is increasing in the Arctic, commission officials said, and more information is needed to prevent or respond to sunken vessels or other ship-related spills.

The new report finds fault in federal funding levels for research, specifically for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and recommends that NOAA receive additional money through the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to pay for research and development. The fund is replenished by a tax on crude oil produced or imported to the country.

The U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory co-authored the report. Titled "Oil Spills in Arctic Waters," it also calls upon government agencies to reveal, in their public spending plans, how much they set aside for research on oil spills in ice-covered waters.

Good research information on Arctic spill response and prevention is crucial to help decision makers such as the president, the Department of the Interior and NOAA make informed decisions about future development, Farrell said.

"Without that information, you're pretty much having to make a decision in the dark," he said.




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