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Ability to respond to oil spill in the Arctic called 'sorely lacking'

Yereth RosenAlaska Dispatch News

Before anyone can adequately respond to oil spills in the U.S. Arctic, people need to know much more about what exists in the Arctic, according to a report issued Wednesday by the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering​. The 183-page report on oil spill responses in Alaska’s Arctic outlines a wide range of deficiencies in knowledge about natural resources, ice conditions, weather patterns and even basic geography in the region.

Adequate infrastructure to respond to an oil spill in Alaska’s Arctic waters is also sorely lacking, the report said.

“The lack of infrastructure in the Arctic would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill,” it said. “It is unlikely that responders could quickly react to an oil spill unless there were improved port and air access, stronger supply chains, and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies, and personnel.”

The report, requested by the U.S. Arctic Commission, the American Petroleum Institute, and numerous federal agencies, makes 13 recommendations for improved spill readiness in the Arctic waters off Alaska.

Those recommendations won consensus from a “really diverse” committee that spent 18 months drafting the report, said University of Alaska Fairbanks Vice Chancellor Mark Myers, a committee member. The group included representatives from the oil industry, academia, government resource agencies and Arctic communities.

The report is wide-ranging, Myers said. “The oil spill risk isn’t just about oil and gas,” he said. “It's about marine shipping and even oil tanks on the ground.”

Recommendations call for beefed-up environmental and scientific research, enhanced U.S. Coast Guard presence, training oil-spill responders in local Arctic communities, new oil-spill response research, an expedited study of Bering Strait traffic, improved sea-ice and weather forecasts as well as more cooperation with Alaska’s Russian and Canadian neighbors.

A major scientific effort is needed because baseline and historical information is so sparse, the report said. And research must be ongoing because the Arctic is being transformed by climate change, it added.

High-resolution satellite and airborne images of coastlines and near-shore environments are needed, and should be updated regularly because the coastline is rapidly eroding and changing, the study said. Expanded use of unmanned aerial and marine vehicles, already deployed by UAF and other institutions, could help in mapping, the report said.

Realistic spill-cleanup research would allow for “controlled field releases” of oil in Arctic waters to test cleanup equipment and methods, the study said. Laboratory tests to date have been useful, the report said, but current and emerging oil-spill response technologies should be validated in tests conducted “under realistic environmental conditions” -- meaning the actual Arctic environment. Up to now, discharges of oil have not been allowed in U.S. Arctic waters for training or scientific exercises.

Also recommended is more cooperation with Alaska’s Russian neighbors. The Coast Guard “should expand its existing bilateral agreement with Russia to include Arctic spill scenarios and conduct regular exercises to establish joint responses under Arctic conditions,” and develop a joint contingency plan with Russia and Canada, the report said.

Some of the recommendations -- such as improved mapping -- overlap with ambitions articulated in an action plan released Monday by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. It is unclear whether governments or other entities plan to make the financial investments to carry out the report’s recommendations.

The report suggests some potential funding sources. Revenues from oil leasing or production could be shared with some sort of “public-private-municipal partnership,” the report said.

Cost efficiencies could be found if data is shared, including between oil companies, Myers said. The Alaska Legislature appears poised to approve a bill that would establish an Arctic infrastructure development fund, to be administered by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, that could help pay for new facilities in the region. Lawmakers have made no commitment to put any money into the fund, and there are no anticipated appropriations until FY 2016, according to legislative documents.

As for boosting cooperative efforts with Russian authorities to enhance marine safety, Myers said he is optimistic, despite rising tensions over Ukraine.

“Political events come and go. The resources and the challenges remain the same,” he said.

Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth(at)alaskadispatch.com.