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Chukchi Sea current would send spilled oil straight at Northwest Alaska

Daniel Lum

This year, there is new information about a huge subsurface ocean current (the Divergent Current) in the Chukchi Sea that would bring any oil spills from the drill sites straight to shore, spreading up and down both coasts of the entire North Slope.

Last month at the 2013 National Academy of Science’s Arctic Oil Spills Panel at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, some disturbing data was presented about the Divergent Current that flows directly from the Chukchi Sea offshore drill sites straight to Wainwright. Then it splits in both directions down the coast, towards Barrow and Kaktovik, and in the other direction to Point Lay and Point Hope

Wainwright would get the oil first, the next day after an oil discharge. Then it spreads. This information (data and charts) is to be released in the next upcoming Bureau of Ocean Energy Management report on the effects of offshore development, in the capacity of a research report.

In a V-LOS (Very Large Oil Spill, BOEM Chukchi estimates) they project theoretical limits of 61,672 barrels a day discharging until well capping is achieved. They also estimate 74 days to drill a relief well to stop a V-LOS. That is 4,563,728 barrels of oil! That is 191,676,576 gallons of crude! And that is if they can drill a relief well in that time frame.

A major problem at offshore drilling sites is that there are often huge fields or plates of ice that can completely halt any operations.  If they are not able to contain the well before ice season, we risk months of Very Large Oil Spill — ending our hunting and fishing as millions and millions of barrels line the shores. 

The Divergent Current intersects the bowhead whale migration route. If any spillage occurs during migration, then the Bowheads would move through the spill dispersal. We would never know which whales are contaminated — their filter feeding baleen would be clogged with crude.

This intersection can be seen when you compare the migration route map and the Chukchi Sea subsurface current maps.  It makes an ominous “X."

Factor in the complete absence of any form of spill response in icy or rough waters in the Arctic and we have a super-disaster in waiting.  For years industry (and our government agencies) have skipped around the fact that there is no proven spill response when ocean ice or strong wave action are present. 

All tests have failed in these conditions, yet industry has somehow managed to certify their skimmers and response systems, unproven on location. Setting booms and using skimmers in calm protected inlets down south cannot compare whatsoever to the rough, icy waters 70 miles offshore in the Chukchi!

Fifteen years ago in Barrow we protested at the North Slope Borough’s Assembly Building — hundreds of people chanting “We Oppose Offshore Drilling.”  That sentiment is still alive just beaten down by nearly 600 “community meetings” with industry. 

As development spreads west from Prudhoe Bay onshore, we will have revenues to maintain the schools, health clinics and community services etc. — the borough will sustain.        

The Divergent Current that comes to shore, the giant amount of oil that could be released and the failure of spill response all threaten to take away everything.  My family lives in Fairbanks now until our daughter resolves a medical issue, but we still have a strong interest in preserving our food stream — we get lots of maktak and quaq from both Wainwright and Barrow.  Quyanaq.

Daniel Lum lives in Fairbanks. He operated a wildlife tour company in Barrow and is a graduate of Ilisagvik College. His first book, a photo-narrative about the sandy spit of land known as Point Barrow, titled "Nuvuk, the Northernmost," will be released in June through the University of Alaska and University of Chicago presses.

The preceding commentary was first published in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.