A new report by the World Wildlife Fund Canada was emphatic on one point: A significant oil spill in the Canadian section of the Beaufort Sea would quickly contaminate ecologically sensitive shorelines in Canada and Alaska.
The conclusion was released July 25 just as Imperial Oil and Chevron Canada are gearing up for reviews of their deepwater exploration plans by the National Energy Board and Inuit-led environmental panels.
In anticipation of applications for drilling approvals, the WWF hired RPS Applied Sciences Associates to model the spread and fate of potential oil spills associated with increased ship traffic and offshore exploration and development.
The consultants concluded that, in the event of a major blowout, currents and winds would contribute to a rapid spread of the crude, which would become trapped in sea ice, making cleanup virtually impossible and would have a high probability of reaching Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Using chemical dispersants to curb the spread would result in toxic concentrations of dissolved crude in the water column along the Beaufort Shelf, which houses species that are critical to the Arctic ecosystem.
Inuvialuit Game Council involvedWWF Canada worked with the Inuvialuit Game Council, the IGC, of the Northwest Territories on compiling the report and plans to hold a series of meetings with local communities to review the findings.
Modeling was based on up-to-date data on ice, weather and ocean current in the Beaufort, with estimates of spill sizes and the effectiveness of cleanup measures built on information used by the industry.
The consultants considered 22 different oil-spill scenarios, including a fuel or oil spill from a tanker, a pipeline release and blowouts in both shallow and deep water.
RPS found that in all cases there would be up to a 50 percent chance that an oil slick would spread into Alaska and a 10 percent chance of the oil drifting as far as Russian waters in the Chukchi Sea.
Subsurface oil contamination from a blowout would be very likely to spread into Alaskan waters.
Project coordinator Dan Slavik said it is “quite startling how quickly and how widely (spills) can spread,” regardless of the spill size or the time of year.
2011 report cited weather impactA 2011 report commissioned by the NEB determined that cleanup efforts in Arctic waters would be impossible at least one day in five because of bad weather or sea ice.
Miller said that even a minor spill could have a major impact on marine wildlife including beluga whales.
Frank Pokiak, chairman of the IGC, said local residents are now in a better position to understand what spills could do to their environment, adding that the Inuvialuit reliance on seals, whales and fish could experience a devastating setback.
“One spill in the Beaufort would be devastating for the Inuvialuit and the marine species and wildlife that we harvest,” he told reporters. “We know there is going to be risk in offshore activity that is happening. So we’re dealing with those issues and haven’t decided on a position.”
WWF President David Miller said that with decisions being made on exploration proposals the “need for this information is very urgent.”
He said the study findings demonstrate the enormity of the risk posed by deepwater drilling.
Miller insisted the industry must show it has a credible plan to manage risks and “based on what we’ve seen to date that’s going to be extremely difficult for them to do, particularly deepwater wells.”
Objections to same-season relief wellsImperial and Chevron have both objected to the NEB’s proposal for same-season relief wells, arguing that would be impossible to achieve and have suggested their own alternatives.
Imperial said its proposal to use the “best available technology and apply the best safety practices and standards” would be consistent with the NEB’s commitment to “goal-based regulation in ensuring the highest levels of protection in offshore Arctic drilling.”
It described its primary approach to well control as the “prevention of incidents,” while Chevron said it has developed a new technology that will ensure a fail-safe barrier against blowouts rather than same-season relief wells.