What if the BP Spill Happened in the Arctic Ocean?

Dangerous Conditions Could Spell Disaster

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted October 4, 2011

As I was watching those little boats skimming what oil they could from the Gulf after the BP spill, I thought to myself, how could this be any worse?

Well, try adding millions of tons of ice, treacherous weather, and a total lack of response infrastructure to the mix...

As more of the Arctic Ocean is opened for oil exploration, it's a scenario that becomes more and more likely.

While the Gulf of Mexico is the best prepared area for offshore oil spill response, the Arctic Ocean is the perhaps the worst.

BP spent $40 billion and six months on clean-up efforts ranging from scooping, burning, and dispersing the oil from the idyllic Gulf Coast. It required thousands of responders, over 6,000 boats, and millions of gallons of dispersant to finally get the situation under control.

But in the Arctic Ocean, the weather is absolutely atrocious. Besides the constant ice cover and freezing temperatures, the region hosts hurricane-like storms that can last a week at a time. Add heavy fog and two months a year of complete darkness, and you end up with a volatile situation, to say the least...

If a BP-sized disaster were to occur in such menacing conditions, how would clean-up efforts hold up?

That's the $40 billion dollar question that oil companies are wrestling with now.arctic boat

“Cleaning up oil under ocean ice is impossible. You would have to break and remove thousands of tons of ice as the oil keeps moving with the currents out to sea,” Greenpeace energy specialist Vladmir Chuprov told Reuters.

In the event of an oil spill, responders would cut a massive hole around the leak site before they could begin skimming and dispersing. This is a long and difficult process that requires highly specialized equipment.

But since much of the coastline in the Arctic Ocean is uninhabited, equipment storage and transportation are extremely limited if not nonexistent.

Coast Guard stations — so valuable during the Deepwater disaster — could be more than 1,000 miles away.

Meanwhile, the current pushes the oil to ever deeper and more remote areas of ocean, making it increasingly difficult to locate and clean up. Plus, oil evaporates much slower in frozen conditions.

And once responders finally do get access to the oil, things don't get a hell of a lot easier...

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon spill, responders relied on skimmers, boom, burning, and dispersants to clean things up; in the Arctic, these tactics wouldn't be nearly as effective. The ice makes navigating skimmers very difficult, and can tear the booms. 

As you might imagine, the Arctic Ocean is not the ideal place to start a fire. First off, the oil slick must be thick enough to catch fire; if it does catch, the windy conditions make it extremely dangerous.

Dispersants also become less effective as temperatures drop, and there is still the lingering question of dispersant's toxic effects on marine wildlife...

With these difficulties in mind, the PEW Environment Group has just released an exhaustive report detailing the entire conundrum. They recommend reforming the government's approval and oversight of Arctic Ocean oil exploration in the following four areas:

1) Federal resource management agencies must complete a comprehensive science plan, including research and data collection on the Arctic marine environment, before oil and gas exploration and development proceed;

2) Oil spill risk assessments and spill prevention technologies must reflect Arctic conditions;

3) Spill response must be tailored to Arctic conditions, and response planning standards must be strengthened;

4) Review and oversight of oil and gas drilling must be enhanced.

You can read all of the report's recommendations in full here.

Obviously, nobody wants to see an oil spill happen. But if there is one thing to take away from the Gulf disaster, it's that you really can't be too prepared.

And unless we are willing to risk another accident with potentially greater damages, I'd venture to say that these adventurous oil companies better take the time and effort to cover their asses.

We've seen the best prepared area get hit. Are you prepared to see the worst?

Be Well,