A new report finds nations are woefully unprepared for Arctic oil spills

Living on Earth
Drilling unit aground

Back in January, Royal Dutch Shell announced it was abandoning plans to drill for oil in the Arctic waters near Alaska.

It was the second time in two years the company was forced to postpone plans to drill in the region.

Given the difficulties the company has faced — including losses of about $6 billion dollars — and the continuing geopolitical and environmental battles surrounding the practice, the question arises: Is it even worth the trouble?

Now, a new report from the National Research Council casts even more doubt on the wisdom of Arctic drilling. The report warns that the region is still so dangerous and isolated that the nations involved don’t have the proper equipment, infrastructure or personnel in place to deal with a potential oil spill.

Mark Reed, a senior scientist at the Norwegian research foundation SINTEF, and a member of the NRC committee that wrote the report, says the lack of engineering readiness to handle a spill in the Arctic is a great concern.

“The first thing to note,” Reed says, “is that we’re not very good at cleaning up oil anywhere. But, in general, there are a lot of negative aspects to a spill in the Arctic...If it’s in the winter, of course, you have to deal with both darkness and cold temperatures. This makes the work a lot more challenging, and of course, the equipment that you’re using has to be made to function in freezing weather.”

In addition, the ice makes access to an oil spill more difficult. “On the other hand,” he adds, “the presence of sea ice can serve to contain a spill, such that it doesn’t spread over large areas.”

One of the major issues the NRC report addresses is the lack of infrastructure in place to deal with the complicated logistics of an oil spill in the Arctic.

“One thing is communication,” Reed explains. “You need to be able to get information to the spill responders and from the spill responders in essentially real time, and things like cell phones are not useful up there at this point.”

“There’s also a problem with airplane overflights that give you information on where the oil is and where should you send your equipment now or tomorrow,” Reed continues. “Flying airplanes in the Arctic is more challenging than in more temperate, less turbulent areas.”

Finally, Reed says, to mount a large response to a spill requires “a lot of people and a lot of equipment. So you need housing for people and maintenance for equipment — and these capabilities are just not in place.”

Reed says developing the infrastructure and handling the logistics of an Arctic spill is a “circumpolar problem” that demands international cooperation.

‘If we can ignore the problems among what I call the ‘Arctic bordering countries’ and deal with this in a cooperative fashion,” he says, “I think we could share the costs and the benefits of oil exploration in the Arctic, and reduce the risks significantly.”

Shell’s decision to put off its plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea was a “wise and conservative move,” according to Reed.

“Most of us on the committee agree that we need to be more prepared than we are today before we venture too far north,” he says. “It’s probably too much to ask for one company to put all this together, and the rest of us to sit around and watch. I think it has to be a multi-industry, multi-national effort, to do this well.”

So, given all these challenges in the Arctic, and given the growing doubts and controversies around the burning of fossil fuels, how much sense does it make to be trying to extract hydrocarbons in an environment like the Arctic?

Reed’s response is diplomatic, measured and slightly surprising.

“That’s a question that has a lot of different angles,” he answers. “I will say that in my personal opinion, the problem with oil spills is relatively minor compared to the effect that global warming is having on the Arctic. If you’re worried about polar bears or other marine mammals, climate change is a much, much bigger issue.”

This story is based on an interview from PRI's environmental news magazine, Living on Earth.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.