AD Main Menu

More research needed to ensure safe offshore oil development in Arctic

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

There’s been a lot of news about oil and gas developments in Alaska's Arctic in recent weeks. Shell tested its capping system, and is waiting for the final permits to launch its 2012 exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Meanwhile, the federal government announced plans to open up two new Arctic lease areas off the northern shores of Alaska in the next five years.

Included in both of these announcements was a lot of verbiage about protecting the environment and the rights of Native subsistence use, not to mention lots of quotes about listening to Native knowledge and incorporating it into the plans. It’s hard to tell when those sorts of statements are made whether they represent a true intent or if they are statements incorporated because they know it will all sound better that way.

Call me a skeptic, but I’d rather see some concrete plans to protect the Arctic as much as is possible woven into this approach.

One such plan was suggested in June by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. The Oil Spill Research and Technology Act of 2012, which was introduced June 14, aims to bring oil spill technology up to speed with modern-day research by, essentially, throwing money at it. The plan is to institute a competitive grant program with universities and other institutions to research new methods and technologies to clean up oil spills, with special attention into methods to clean up oil spills in icy conditions.

It comes with a not-so-weighty $2 million-per-year price tag -- and I’m not sure how much research that would buy, really, but it’s a start.

“We must do everything we can to prevent a spill, but if one happens, we need to have the best technology on hand to minimize damage,” Cantwell said in a statement. “It’s time to bring the technology we use to clean up oil spills into the 21st century. This bill will help protect our growing coastal economy from the threat of oil spills.”

Alaskans know more than most what an impact a single spill can have to a fragile ecosystem.

The Arctic is already under enough pressure as it is, with changing environmental conditions allowing for all sorts of unexpected situations, from storms to algae blooms. An oil spill, especially in an area where clean-up conditions are challenging, would be, almost certainly devastating.

When the Renda made its epic voyage to Nome in January bringing fuel to the ice-locked community, lawmakers seized the opportunity to tout how much we need more ice breakers and U.S. Coast Guard presence in the Arctic. The propaganda machine really went into full swing, with the story spreading throughout the world.

And its true -- more Coast Guard infrastructure is very important, it would seem, to helping guide the Arctic’s explosive expansion as an area of resource development and interest. But all the protection and manpower the Coast Guard has to offer won’t do a thing if the methods we have to isolate an oil spill don’t work in the icy Arctic waters.

Cantwell’s bill requires the Coast Guard to establish a program to evaluate and implement “best available technology” to respond and clean up oil spills. It also gives the Coast Guard the authority to review regional oil spill response plans every five years to ensure the best technology is in place.

There is so much we don’t know, and as Cantwell points out, the oil and gas industry currently lacks incentives and requirements to research, develop and adopt new cleanup technologies. Even in the best-case scenarios, oil-response technologies currently used capture as little as 40 percent of spilled crude in the first 48 hours of a 50,000-barrel oil spill, Cantwell noted from a 2009 study in Washington state -- a far cry from Alaska’s conditions.

In fact, the senator noted, spill-response technologies have changed little between 1989 and now. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is another example of how impacted Alaska could be by a spill.

It’s hard to know what to believe when it comes to oil and gas development. Environmental groups say there is no such thing as safe drilling in the Arctic. That’s probably true, when it comes right down to it. Oil companies say they are dumping millions into equipment and technology to make drilling safer than ever before, and the federal government is justifying its approval of such action by saying it is requiring more of the oil companies than ever before.

It all sounds good, considering we don’t seem to be slowing down our consumption of oil much. But it would be inspiring to see as much energy as was put toward the promotion of a greater Coast Guard presence be put toward the endorsement of Cantwell’s bill, and increased scientific study of oil spill response technology.

Because if we’ve learned anything from past spills, it’s that what we have to offer technology-wise is inadequate. And in the Arctic, that inadequacy will be surely magnified exponentially.

Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. To submit a commentary for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.