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No one has solid plan to clean up major oil spill in Chukchi Sea

  • Author: Bill Stringer
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published August 30, 2015

I would like to address the issue of oil spills in the Chukchi Sea lease areas offshore Barrow in the fall. Federal rules require that drilling cease by Sept. 28. This is based on the idea that sea ice will encroach on the drilling site by Nov. 1 and the one month between the two dates will provide sufficient time for a relief well to be drilled. That is an inaccurate interpretation of ice edge behavior. There is not a one-month window for drilling a relief well but a window that starts closing Oct.1 and is closed by Nov. 1. On average one might expect a 15-day drilling opportunity and not the entire month of October.

I, along with J. E. Groves, submitted the report, "Statistical Description of the Summertime Ice Edge in the Chukchi Sea" to the Department of Energy in 1988. It is based on NOAA/Navy Joint Ice Center Analysis Charts of the Southern Ice Limit (in the Chukchi Sea) gathered over the 12-year period 1972 through 1983. These charts are based on satellite data and frequent overflights performed by trained ice observers aboard long-range U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft. The report contains a series of maps of the Chukchi Sea showing weekly ice edge (AKA Southern Ice Limit) frequencies of 0, 20, 40, 60, 80, and 100 percent for the entire period.

In general those maps show that the drilling area had been ice-free all years during the study in September and had been within the ice limit by the start of November in all years studied. This does not mean that the entire area will be ice-free in all years during all of October and suddenly be within the ice limit on Nov. 1. Rather, it indicates that there is a high likelihood that the drilling area will be within the ice limit sometime during October.

More to the point, it means that there will be a decreasing chance of being able to drill a relief well in ice-free water as October progresses. For instance, there is roughly an even chance that a relief well will not be possible after Oct. 15.

Thus, the federal drilling rules do not guarantee that a relief well can be drilled before Nov. 1 and therefore are grossly in error. These rules could lead to a large uncontrolled spill.

The methodology envisioned for oil spill cleanup within the ice limit hardly applies to conditions expected in the lease areas. The cleanup plan (Alaska Clean Seas Tech Manual) describes recovery techniques that might be applied to optimistically benign near-shore conditions and not conditions that exist in the lease areas. Readers are encouraged to examine the manual online.

The fall ice edge advances southward in the Chukchi Sea through a combination of transport of pack ice that has survived the summer and newly forming ice. Within the lease area, there is nothing like the stable ice platforms envisioned in the tech manual for oil recovery operations. Furthermore, the fall months are characterized by storms, cloudiness and fog, making the already poor visibility even poorer. Most of the ice is quite thin and is subject to highly dynamic deformation processes. Only ice-strengthened vessels could operate in these conditions. Are they available in any number? Are there sufficient numbers of trained Arctic personnel?

Also, ice deformation processes will likely result in oil being spread throughout the forming and thickening ice. The wind- and current-driven mixing processes will result in this oiled ice being spread throughout the Chukchi Sea and in later months possibly introduced into the Bering and Beaufort seas. Keeping track of oiled ice through the winter for later cleanup would be very difficult if not impossible as it would be distributed throughout a very large area.

From the operational cleanup literature and published spill research, I conclude that by default the unvoiced method of oil spill mitigation will be in-situ burning. If this methodology is to be employed, it will have to be prompt and likely use aircraft. Days may transpire between spill and burning by which time the oil may be dispersed far and wide. Beyond that, burning only removes the most volatile components of the oil. Much of the heavy unburned component will accumulate on the sea floor in a region used by bottom-feeding sea mammals. Other components will result in a heavy black smoke that will cover the downwind ice with soot of as-yet unknown toxicity. Yet, burning seems to be the unspoken method of cleanup anticipated by the oil industry and responsible federal and state agencies.

My conclusion is supported by the absence of preparation for a large spill in the Chukchi Sea, ranging from no Arctic training of sufficient numbers of personnel to no site preparation for the large camps envisioned for personnel flown in from much warmer locations. (The village of Wainwright has been somewhat prepared for dealing with only small spills.) In fact, there is nothing that appears to be a plan for dealing with a large spill in the Chukchi far offshore during fall freeze-up except in-situ burning.

If nothing else, the federal and state agencies and Shell Oil should address the use of in-situ burning publicly. The Obama administration must face the fact that it has made what could turn out to be a grievous mistake by allowing drilling to take place without a viable plan to deal with a large oil spill in the lease areas being drilled by Shell Oil.

We need to have a viable plan to deal with a large oil spill in the Chukchi Sea. To accomplish this, I propose a meeting or series of meetings to synthesize sea ice research results, spill mitigation technology, biological resources, personnel training, agency responsibilities and private responder capabilities before another drilling season takes place.

Bill Stringer is is professor emeritus of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He spent much of his professional career researching ice movement and shore interactions with regard to petroleum exploration and production in coastal Alaska waters.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)