Researchers: Much still unknown about cleaning up Arctic oil spills

WASHINGTON -- As drillers make their way toward Arctic waters, some researchers say plenty remains unknown about how to deal with an oil spill in icy waters up North.

The U.S. Arctic Research Commission wants better testing in actual Arctic conditions, John Farrell, the commission's executive director, told the audience at a Arctic symposium in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.

"The commission calls for the controlled release of small amounts of oil in water, as they do off Norway. Currently the Coast Guard is trying with surrogates and simulants, but throwing oranges overboard and trying to pretend that that is similar to an oil spill is a far cry," Farrell said, showing photos of just that -- several oranges bobbing in Arctic waters.

"So we're calling on them to resume these small controlled spills. We think it's important," Farrell said.

The government has approved -- and courts upheld -- Shell's Arctic oil spill plans, and officials say that much has been learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

But questions remain, particularly around Corexit, the dispersant used in that case to limit the impact of the oil as it gushed into the Gulf for months, and more than two decades earlier in the Exxon Valdez spill.

Some reports have argued the dispersant is highly toxic to workers who apply it.


"Right now, there's no preapproval to use dispersants" in the event of a spill, said Admiral Paul Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.

But it is on hand.

Shell is required to have skimming and containment systems to recover oil as well, he said. But "if there was a catastrophic well failure," it could release as much as 25,000 barrels of oil into the Arctic every day, Zukunft said.

And "even in the best of conditions mechanical removal of oil is very labor-intensive, and you will not recover 100 percent of that oil. And there are weather conditions where you cannot physically use mechanical methods of removal," he said, noting times of rough seas that made it an impossible task in the Gulf, during the Deepwater Horizon spill.

That leaves dispersants. But officially, "that would be a just-in-time decision" made by a national and regional response team, using the latest science, he said.

When it comes to dispersants in the Arctic, it "still needs a lot of research," said David Kennedy, deputy under secretary for operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Now, NOAA is working on engaging academics that aren't traditionally involved in government efforts to manage oil spills to expand the expertise on which it can draw. "We're optimistic that we may have a way ahead, and we're looking at a couple of pilots, one of those in the Arctic," Kennedy said.

And the Department of Homeland Security is "spinning up an Arctic domain awareness center at the University of Alaska Anchorage," added Martin Jeffries, of the Office of Naval Research.

The Navy, for one, isn't sending surface vessels to the Arctic just yet. Before that, the Navy "wants to make sure it can do that safely and effectively," Jeffries said.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.