Frontier Areas—The Arctic

 

Oil Spill Commission Action Assessment Report Frontier Areas - The ArcticThe Commission recognized that as gas prices rise and existing reservoirs of oil are depleted, pressure will increase to move farther offshore and into previously unexplored areas in the search for new supplies of oil and gas. The United States is not the only nation moving into frontier areas. Both Cuba and Mexico are planning to drill deep wells in the Gulf of Mexico, and most Arctic nations are exploring opportunities to develop projected petroleum resources in Arctic waters where sea ice is diminishing and access is increasing.

The Arctic is a region that poses special challenges and opportunities; the region is both vulnerable and valuable, and requires intensified planning and preparation. Although a great deal of Arctic research has been undertaken over the last several decades, many central unanswered questions remain about the unique and complex ecosystems, and how climate change is impacting those systems. The U.S. Geological Survey conducted a thorough review of Arctic research and published a report of what research has been done and identified major gaps in the information that exists.

The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas present particularly challenging conditions for industry and for responders due to the increasingly extreme weather conditions (cold, ice, hurricane force winds) and remote location with limited response infrastructure. These considerations led the commission to recommend increased vigilance by both the industry and regulators.

The Commission recommended that the federal government undertake the research necessary to provide a comprehensive foundation of information about the environmental characteristics of the frontier areas where new drilling is to be permitted. In the Gulf of Mexico, outer continental shelf research is being conducted under the auspices of BOEM, and the consortia of universities funded by BP. In the Arctic, this research is being conducted by many agencies, including BOEM, NOAA, National Science Foundation (NSF), universities, and the industry. The amount that the federal government has budgeted for these research efforts has increased. According to DOI, 40-50 percent of the BOEM environmental studies program budget is now being spent on the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, establishing baseline data on issues such as fisheries and marine mammals and indigenous populations’ use of marine resources.

Several efforts are underway to bring additional interagency coordination and investment to address information needs. One is the five year Arctic research plan, about to be released in draft form by the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, under the leadership of NSF. Another is an attempt by the North Pacific Research Board to synthesize many of the individual research products into a more comprehensive system analysis. There remain, however, many unanswered questions and much work to be done. The National Academy of Sciences has proposed an Arctic research initiative to address high priorities.

The Commission also recommended a comprehensive research effort on oil spill containment and response issues in the Arctic, which is especially challenging in ice-covered waters and with limited response and support infrastructure. The Joint Industry Task Force issued a report entitled Spill Response in the Arctic Offshore in February which summarizes completed research and proposed work that will be undertaken by industry and universities. It augments work done previously by the independent Scandinavian research group SINTEF.

Additionally, the U.S. Coast Guard chairs the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research, which was created to “coordinate a comprehensive program of oil pollution research, technology development, and demonstration among the federal agencies”. Although inactive until recently, it has revitalized both the investment of resources and the coordination of the various agencies with efforts underway to explore the most effective techniques and technologies. It has not yet produced any significant reports or research results, but it is demonstrating leadership in an area that had long been a low priority.

The Commission also recommended the demonstration of successful containment and response capabilities in the Arctic. BSEE, NOAA, USCG, and Shell conducted a tabletop exercise in March and more drills are planned for the spring. Although industry has conducted experiments to use in-situ burning and mechanical recovery of oil in ice conditions (both in Norwegian waters and in laboratory environments), these techniques have not been successfully tested in the extreme weather conditions that are often present in Arctic waters nor they been evaluated in any significant way by government entities.

The federal government did determine that the spill response plans provided by Royal Dutch Shell, the company planning to begin drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas this summer, included sufficient containment and response equipment to respond adequately if a spill were to occur. DOI also shortened the drilling period to protect against the hazards of a spill toward the end of the season in the Chukchi Sea. It did not, however, make such an adjustment in the Beaufort Sea despite the frequently earlier encroachment of ice there.

The Coast Guard will have ships and aircraft stationed in the area where the drilling will take place. The Commission recommended that the USCG establish, with additional resources provided by Congress, an adequate response capability in the Arctic. The Coast Guard has made it clear in Congressional testimony that they are not yet prepared to deal with a serious drilling incident in the Arctic. The commission members note that substantial controversy remains over: (1) the adequacy of the information provided by Shell and required by DOI on spill response and containment; (2) the adequacy of the spill response plans and containment capability in the region, including the ability to protect important ecological areas along the shoreline and elsewhere; and, (3) the length of the seasonal drilling restrictions imposed. The commissioners as a group, however, are not in a position to pass judgment on the adequacy of any specific project or permit.

Some progress is evident in agreements promoting improved international cooperation along the lines the Commission proposed. The United States has reached an agreement with Mexico for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico providing for joint inspection teams to ensure that rigs are operating safely. And there have been informal discussions with Cuba regarding their intentions and capabilities. In neither case, however, has an agreement been submitted to Congress for approval.

The United States joined the other Arctic nations on the Arctic Council in an agreement to develop recommendations for an ecosystem-based Management (EBM) initiative for protecting the Arctic’s environment. The National Ocean Council is developing an Arctic EBM proposal for the US. Last year, the Arctic Council approved a binding agreement for emergency search and rescue, and are currently negotiating another agreement for oil spill preparedness and response throughout the region. Hopefully, these initiatives will receive strong support as Canada and then the United States take their turns chairing the Arctic Council from 2013 through 2017.

The Commission’s final recommendation was for the establishment of a regional citizens council to participate in the planning process for exploration in the Arctic, and to ensure protection of the food supply, health and culture of Alaska Natives. Neither Congress nor the Administration has yet implemented this recommendation although it is included in proposed legislation.

The most important actions that should be undertaken during the next year are:

  • Expanding and funding the research necessary to adequately characterize environmental conditions in the Arctic areas where new drilling is anticipated;
  • Conducting additional research on and industry demonstration of the ability to prevent, respond to, contain and clean-up an oil spill in Arctic conditions;
  • Establishing a regional citizens council for Arctic and Subarctic offshore planning decisions;
  • Promoting the international adoption of standards and procedures for spill prevention and response in order to safeguard the fragile Arctic regions; and,
  • Removing the barriers which could prevent the U.S. from responding to spills that occur in Mexican or Cuban waters.