As the Arctic opens up and commercial activity increases, especially in the offshore, concerns about the possibility of a major oil spill, either from oil industry activities or from an Arctic shipping accident, have gained much attention of late.

In an Aug. 15 workshop organized by the Institute of the North people representing several organizations with interests in mitigating Arctic oil spill risks convened to present and discuss Arctic oil spill contingency arrangements, with a particular focus on understanding the perspectives of Arctic communities and others with stakeholder interests in the region.

Evolving Arctic

Mark Myers, vice chancellor of research in the University of Alaska Fairbanks, set the stage by overviewing the background to oil spill concerns in the evolving Arctic world.

Oil prices that are likely to remain high, coupled with continuing oil demand growth, are driving oil drilling, with drilling locations being determined by geology rather than by other considerations, and with the Beaufort and Chukchi seas both having known hydrocarbon accumulations, Myers said.

At the same time, the Arctic ecosystem is both dynamic and changing, as global warming impacts the offshore sea ice and the onshore permafrost. And in this changing world, where the ecosystem is only understood at a very basic level, environmental monitoring and adaptive environmental management will be critically important in keeping tabs on the changing natural world that an oil spill might impact, Myers said.

Effective two-way communications between scientists and Arctic villagers will be critical to this environmental monitoring, he said.

Cmdr. Shawn Decker, chief of response for sector Anchorage, U.S. Coast Guard, said that in recent years the Coast Guard has become increasingly aware of the emerging Arctic. The Anchorage and western Alaska region has become one of the Coast Guard’s fastest growth areas. And Admiral Robert Papp, the Coast Guard commandant, has released a Coast Guard Arctic strategy, a key piece of which is community outreach and partnership, Decker said.

Contingency planning

The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have oversight of legally mandated national, regional and subarea contingency plans for oil spills, with regional plans developed in conjunction with state agencies. These plans provide a framework for cooperation between government and private entities in spill response planning. However, there is also a legal requirement for an individual entity conducting an activity posing an oil spill risk to maintain its own approved oil spill prevention and response plan. And, in the event of an actual oil spill, the entity responsible for the spill will normally fund the response effort, typically using equipment and personnel contracted through an oil spill response organization, or OSRO.

In addition a regional response team is based in each region of the U.S. and consists of representatives of federal, state and local government agencies. The team promotes a system of response preparedness, develops spill response regulations and provides support to a federal on-scene coordinator during a response.

More inclusive

Mark Everett, incident management and preparedness advisor for Coast Guard District 17, told the workshop that in the last couple of years the Coast Guard has tried to make contingency planning more inclusive, engaging tribal organizations, conducting outreach to a number of villages, and trying to hold Alaska Regional Response Team meetings in a variety of venues around the state.

And one lesson learned from the response to the grounding of Shell’s Kulluk floating drilling platform was a need to look at the process for stakeholder involvement during a response, Everett said.

Kristin Ryan, director of Alaska’s Division of Spill Prevention and Response, said the state works actively with the federal authorities in spill response contingency planning. The state has 10 subarea plans and these provide an important means of local community involvement in spill response planning, she said. The state also maintains a set of geographic response plans for protecting locations with particular environmental sensitivity.

Community involvement

Martin Robards from the Wildlife Conservation Society argued for local community involvement in oil spill response efforts, especially in an area such as the Bering Strait where a shipping accident close to land would require particularly rapid action. How can communities become more involved, and what type of training and certification would be required, Robards asked.

Robards said that communities around the Bering Strait are worried about whether their oil spill concerns are being addressed. And, although some of these worries relate to a lack of awareness of spill contingency plans, villagers would feel more comfortable if more involved in what is going on.

Alaska Clean Seas

Barkley Lloyd, president and CEO of Alaska Clean Seas, the OSRO that provides many of the oil spill response resources for Alaska’s North Slope, said that his organization trains and equips local people for participation in the North Slope spill response team that Alaska Clean Seas operates. However, Lloyd expressed caution about the concept of community OSROs because of a long list of potential issues, including the funding of training; equipment purchase and maintenance; personnel physicals and drug testing; and legal liability during a spill response.

As well as holding a large inventory of oil spill response equipment such as boom and oil skimmers, Alaska Clean Seas does research and development into topics such as spill response in icy waters and maintains a comprehensive manual of Arctic oil spill response techniques. The OSRO, a non-profit cooperative with North Slope oil producing companies as members, attends national and international spill response conferences and participates in a global spill response network, Lloyd said.

Lloyd said that his organization collaborates with government agencies over oil spill related regulations. However, he voiced concern that policy and regulation development in Washington, D.C., following major oil spill incidents may not necessarily be appropriate for Alaska. And, along with several other speakers at the workshop, he commented on worries that shipping in international waters close to Alaska shores is not subject to U.S. safety regulations.

ASRC response operations

Sam Brown from Arctic Slope Regional Corp. Energy Services Response Operations, or ARO, said that his company is also a North Slope OSRO, with people and equipment available for oil spill response support for the oil and gas industry. Brown said that, as a subsidiary of Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the Native regional corporation for the North Slope, ARO has a particular interest in protecting its region from a damaging oil spill, with a focus on oil spill response support in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas using local Native and Alaska hire.

Crowley

Bruce Harland, a vice president of Crowley Maritime Corp., said his company has been involved in oil spill response for many years and had assisted with Shell’s spill contingency arrangements during that company’s Arctic offshore drilling campaign in the 1980s. Crowley operates barges around the Alaska coast to deliver fuel to rural villages. With the cost of a substantial standalone spill response system being prohibitive for small-village deliveries, the barges are equipped with boom and mechanical oil recovery systems in case of a spill, Harland said.

Harland commented that although mechanical oil recovery systems have improved, oil recovery rates from water still tend to be quite low.

Crowley recently outfitted response barges, specifically configured to support Shell’s Arctic drilling activities, Harland said. However, the company has been working with Lamor Corp. on the design of a more multi-purpose, double-hulled, ice-class oil spill response vessel, fitted with oil spill response equipment and with below-decks storage for recovered oil, he said.

New recovery technology

Vince Mitchell, vice president for special products, Lamor Corp., a manufacturer of marine oil spill cleanup technology, described some new Lamor equipment designed for recovering oil from ice-laden water.

Oil spilled into Arctic waters behaves differently from oil spilled in more temperate waters, with reduced evaporation, reduced spreading and reduced weathering, Mitchell said. With significant amounts of ice in the water, it may become necessary to use skimmers to tackle pockets of oil trapped in the ice, rather than use the conventional approach of deploying boom to herd oil into a skimmer, he said.

Mitchell recounted two actual offshore oil spill incidents in ice conditions. In the Godafoss spill in 2011, off the Norwegian coast, 60 cubic meters of 110 cubic meters of spilled fuel oil was recovered using skimming systems. And following a collision in an icebreaking convoy in 2006, the skimming of pockets of oil in sea ice resulted in the recovery of about 15,000 liters of 18,000 liters of spilled fuel oil, he said.

In-situ burning and dispersants

Myers commented that, in addition to the use of technologies for mechanical oil recovery, people would need access to techniques such as the in-situ burning of oil and the use of dispersants for rapid response to an Arctic offshore oil spill. He said the modeling the trajectory of oil in broken ice conditions would prove particularly challenging and that technologies such as coastal radar and unmanned submarine gliders could be invaluable in monitoring erratic Arctic sea currents.