Although there has been much recent focus on the risks associated with exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic offshore, it is necessary to take a broader view of arctic oil spill contingency planning, addressing for example risks associated with general arctic shipping and looking at risk management for the future development and production of oil resources, Mark Myers, vice chancellor of research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, or UAF, told a meeting of the Alaska Geological Society on Nov. 28. Myers has been promoting the establishment of an oil spill research center at the university.
“It’s a very different world when you’re doing summer exploration only and in ice-free conditions than when you’re on production in the further offshore,” Myers said. But there is time to work on the issues, with emerging technologies offering opportunities for solving problems, he said.
Dynamic changeThe shrinking sea ice cover in the Arctic is leading to dynamic change in human activity, including increased shipping, more tourism and a burgeoning interest in offshore arctic mineral resources, Myers said. In the oil and gas industry new technologies such as subsea well completions are enabling better access to major offshore resources, while high oil prices are driving an interest in seeking these resources. Ships plying the Arctic carry oil as fuel.
“There’s a significant shipping risk as shipping increases, let alone the oil traffic that is seasonally now travelling between the east coast of Russia and markets in the Far East,” Myers said. “The risk is not just limited to oil and gas.”
Internationally, oil and gas exploration in the Arctic is taking place in a relatively closed basin, where an oil spill in one place can impact countries beyond the spill location.
“So the reality is, no matter what U.S. policy is … the United States will face risks for oil spills,” Myers said.
Infrastructure and researchBut, while there is much concern about environmental risk, a general lack of support infrastructure in the Arctic presents a major challenge to operations in the region. The U.S. Coast Guard is very concerned about its capacity to operate in the Arctic. Helicopters, for example, tend not work to well in cold weather. And communications systems are poor in the Arctic offshore, Myers said.
Follow-up studies in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster have pointed to the need for research and for additional government and industry response capacities in the Arctic offshore, he said.
There is also a need for a better understanding of the complex interdependence of different offshore ecosystems, with continuing environmental change adding to the difficulty of environmental regulation, he said. And site-specific, geology-based analysis of oil spill risks matters when it comes to spill response planning.
Fundamental questions about topics such as the movement and behavior of oil in ice-laden waters; the locations of critical habitats that need protection; and the tolerance of the food web to oil or dispersants are starting to be answered but still require much research.
The human factor — how people perceive and respond to the risks — is also critical, Myers said.
UAF centerMyers hopes to establish the UAF oil spill response center in 2013 to seek innovative approaches to addressing arctic oil spill response challenges. Last year the National Science Foundation decided that it would not fund the initiative, because the foundation viewed an oil spill research institute as an inappropriate target for its funding, Myers said. Instead, the university is now hoping for some state funding to build the coordination component of the proposed center — the research components of the center already exist in various university research departments, Myers said.
“Can we take new, emerging technologies and different approaches, can we integrate approaches, to come up with … integrated (response) capacity in Alaska?” Myers asked, commenting that doing research in Alaska would provide an opportunity to build an Alaska-based industry around that research. It might, for example, be possible to build a tank for testing spill response equipment in Arctic conditions.
The university could potentially become a bridge between industry and the government, to facilitate the development of spill response capacity. The center would also communicate with Alaska communities through its existing network of rural campuses and research relationships, Myers said.
“We certainly are very interested in getting industry or (government) agency partnerships as we move forward with the concept,” Myers said.
Leverage knowledgeWhile avoiding the re-invention of wheels being worked on by others — research into the mechanical recovery or in-situ burning of spilled oil, for example — the university could leverage its arctic knowledge, building on its existing expertise to become a center for the transfer of arctic oil spill response knowledge, Myers said. And Myers cited the recent launch of UAF’s ice-capable research vessel, the Sikuliaq, as an example of the type of arctic research technology that the university could bring to the oil spill research table.
The university has been working on unmanned underwater vehicles that are capable of operating under the sea ice for long-term subsea observations. The university has also for a long time been researching unmanned aerial vehicle technology, something that could become an enabling technology for, for example, extended offshore operations, including operations in poor visibility using infrared and other sensors.
“What we envision … is taking some of the emerging technologies to approach some of the most difficult problems,” Myers said.
Water circulation in the Arctic Ocean and the movements of ocean currents under the ice are not well understood and there is potential for developing improved oil spill trajectory models in ice conditions, he said. The university has world-class skills in climate modeling and in modeling the movement of sea ice, Myers said.
“A lot of fundamental new research opportunities are up here and the ability to incorporate that into the operational structure I think would dramatically improve confidence in the ability to respond to an oil spill in the Arctic,” Myers said.