The Arctic system serves as an integrator for the Earth’s physical, biological, oceanic, and atmospheric processes, with impacts beyond the Arctic itself. The risk of an oil spill in the Arctic presents hazards for Arctic nations and their neighbors.
The threat of a major Arctic oil spill and the potential impacts on the region’s marine ecosystems are of concern for a broad range of U.S. and international interests, including Alaskan natives and others who live in the region, citizens and organizations concerned about the health of the Arctic environment, agencies committed to protecting the environment and threatened species, agencies that regulate extractive activities or transportation, and industries that plan to develop oil and gas, shipping routes, fisheries, or tourism.
Rapid climate change is leading to retreat and thinning of Arctic sea ice, potentially increasing the accessibility of U.S. Arctic marine waters for commercial activities. With this projected rise in activity come additional concerns about the risk of oil spills. Recent interest in developing the rich oil and gas resources in federal waters offshore of Alaska has led to planning, environmental assessments, and preliminary drilling for oil and gas exploration. In addition, expanding maritime activity in the region includes the potential for greater seasonal use by tankers and bulk carriers, fishing fleets that follow the northward migration of fish stocks, and cruise ships interested in exploiting the public’s desire to interact with Arctic wilderness.
The National Research Council was asked by the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), the Marine Mammal Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Oil Spill Recovery Institute to assess the current state of science and engineering regarding oil spill response and Arctic marine environments, with emphasis on potential impacts in U.S. waters in the Bering Strait and Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The committee was tasked to review research activities and recommend strategies to advance research and address information gaps, to identify opportunities and constraints for advancing oil spill research, to describe promising new concepts and technologies,
and to assess the types of baseline information needed to monitor the impacts of an oil spill and to develop plans for recovery and restoration.
THE ARCTIC ENVIRONMENT
Arctic oil spill response is challenging because of extreme weather and environmental conditions; the lack of existing or sustained communications, logistical, and information infrastructure; significant geographic distances; and vulnerability of Arctic species, ecosystems, and cultures.
Figure S.1 Location map of Alaska and the continental United States, and surrounding countries and water bodies. The red box shows the location of the inset map in Figure S.2. Bathymetry, geopolitical boundaries, capitals, and select Alaskan cities are also shown.
Figure S.2 Location map of Alaska and U.S. Arctic waters, focused on the Bering Strait, Chukchi Sea, and Beaufort Sea. Geopolitical boundaries, principal coastal communities, cities, and bathymetry are also shown. Map area corresponds to the red box in Figure S.1.
circulation, ice cover, marine weather, and coastal processes—is important to frame the environmental context for the Arctic ecosystem and can help responders predict where oil will spread and how weathering might change its properties. Parameters such as air and water temperature, wind velocity, and hours of daylight are important considerations in choosing an effective and safe response strategy.
Knowledge of ice thickness, concentration, and extent is essential for anticipating the likely behavior of oil in, under, and on ice and determining applicable response strategies, while high-quality bathymetry, nautical charting, and shoreline mapping data are needed for marine traffic management and oil spill response. From a biological perspective, understanding population dynamics and interconnections within the Arctic food web will enable the determination of key species that are most important for monitoring in the instance of an oil spill.
Baseline data are critical to assess changes over time. In the Arctic, historical data do not provide reliable baselines to assess current environmental or ecosystem states, nor can they fully anticipate potential impacts due to factors such as seasonal and interannual variations or climate change. Instead, monitoring approaches will need to take advantage of benchmarks, or reference points over time, rather than static baselines. Critical types of benchmark data for oil spill response in the Arctic include:
- Spatial and temporal distributions and abundances for fishes, birds, and marine mammals;
- Subsistence and cultural use of living marine resources;
- Identification and monitoring of areas of biological significance;
- Rates of change for key species;
- Sensitivity of key Arctic species to hydrocarbons;
- High-resolution coastal topography and shelf bathymetry; and
- Measurements of ice cover, thickness, and distribution.
Additional research and development needs include meteorological-ocean-ice forecast model systems at high temporal and spatial resolutions and better assimilation of traditional knowledge of sea state and ice behavior into forecasting models. Releasing proprietary monitoring data from exploration activities would increase knowledge of Arctic benchmark conditions. When appropriate, Arctic communities could also release data that they hold regarding important sites for fishing, hunting, and cultural activities.
In many instances, frequent and regular long-term monitoring will be needed to determine trends. Because data are or will be collected by a number of local, state, and federal agencies, as well as industry and academia, a complete information system that integrates Arctic data in support of oil spill preparedness, response, and restoration and rehabilitation is needed. Achieving this goal requires the development of international standards for Arctic data collection, sharing, and integration. A long-term, community-based, multiuse Arctic observing system could provide critical data at a variety of scales.
Recommendation: A real-time Arctic oceanographic-ice-meteorological forecasting system is needed to account for variations in sea ice coverage and thickness and should include patterns of ice movement, ice type, sea state, ocean stratification and circulation, storm surge, and improved resolution in areas of potential risk. Such a system requires robust, sustainable, and effective acquisition of relevant observational data.
Recommendation: High-resolution satellite and airborne imagery needs to be coupled with up-to-date high-resolution digital elevation models and updated regularly to capture the dynamic, rapidly changing U.S. Arctic coastline. Nearshore bathymetry and topography should be collected at a scale appropriate for accurate modeling of coastline vulnerability and storm surge sensitivity. Short- and long-term Arctic nautical charting and shoreline mapping that have been identified in NOAA and U.S. Geological Survey plans should be adequately resourced, so that mapping efforts can be initiated, continued, and completed in timescales
relevant to anticipated changes. To be effective, Arctic mapping priorities should continue to be developed in consultation with stakeholders and industry and should be implemented systematically rather than through surveys of opportunity.
OIL SPILL RESPONSE RESEARCH
A comprehensive, collaborative, long-term Arctic oil spill research and development program that integrates all knowledgeable sectors and focuses on oil behavior, response technologies, and controlled field releases is needed.
Laboratory experiments, field research, and practical experience gained from responding to past oil spills have built a strong body of knowledge on oil properties and oil spill response techniques. However, much of the work has been done for temperate regions, and there are areas where additional research is needed to make informed decisions about the most effective response strategies for different Arctic situations. In the presence of lower water temperatures or sea ice, the processes that control oil weathering—such as spreading, evaporation, photo-oxidation, emulsification, and natural dispersion—are slowed down or eliminated for extended periods of time. Because of encapsulation of oil by new ice growth, oil can also be separated from the environment for months at a time. Understanding how oil behaves or changes in the Arctic environment can help define the most effective oil spill response actions.
In addition to ongoing research on oil properties and weathering in high latitudes, there is a need to validate current and emerging oil spill response technologies on operational scales under realistic environmental conditions. Carefully planned and controlled field releases of oil in the U.S. Arctic would improve the understanding of oil behavior in the Bering Strait and Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and allow for the evaluation of new response strategies specific to the region. Scientific field releases that have been conducted elsewhere in the Arctic demonstrate that such studies can be carried out without measureable harm to the environment.
Recommendation: A comprehensive, collaborative, long-term Arctic oil spill research and development program needs to be established. The program should focus on understanding oil spill behavior in the Arctic marine environment, including the relationship between oil and sea ice formation, transport, and fate. It should include assessment of oil spill response technologies and logistics, improvements to forecasting models and associated data needs, and controlled field releases under realistic conditions for research purposes. Industry, academic, government, non-governmental, grassroots, and international efforts should be integrated into the program, with a focus on peer review and transparency. An interagency permit approval process that will enable researchers to plan and execute deliberate releases in U.S. waters is also needed.
OIL SPILL COUNTERMEASURES
Key response countermeasures and tools for oil removal in Arctic conditions include biodegradation (including oil treated with dispersants), in situ burning, chemical herders, mechanical containment and recovery, detection and tracking, and oil spill trajectory modeling. These are joined by the “no response” option of natural recovery, which is a viable alternative in some situations. No single technique will apply in all situations. The oil spill response toolbox requires flexibility to evaluate and apply multiple response options, if necessary. Well-defined and well-tested decision processes are critical to expedite review and approval of countermeasure options in emergency situations.
Biodegradation and Dispersants
Biodegradation of petroleum hydrocarbons by naturally occurring microbial communities is a major process contributing to the eventual removal of oil that enters the marine environment. Recent studies suggest that indigenous bacteria in Arctic waters degrade oil faster than previously thought and that biodegradation is not strongly inhibited by cold water temperatures. Current research is focused on better understanding of this environmentally important process.
Chemical dispersants facilitate the dilution of oil in the water column and promote biodegradation. There has been considerable debate over the effectiveness of chemical dispersants at low seawater temperatures, but recent studies have shown that dispersants can be effective on nonemulsified oil at freezing temperatures if viscosity does not increase significantly.
Subsea injection of dispersant is a promising option for mitigation of oil spills from a wellhead blowout and could disperse oil at higher rates and with higher efficiency than aerial application. Subsea injection can also operate independently of darkness, extreme temperatures, strong winds, rough seas, or the presence of ice. However, more work needs to be done on the effectiveness, systems design, and short- and long-term impacts of subsea dispersant delivery.
Recommendation: Dispersant pre-authorization in Alaska should be based on sound science, including research on fates and effects of chemically dispersed oil in the Arctic environment, experiments using oils that are representative of those in the Arctic, toxicity tests of chemically dispersed oil at realistic concentrations and exposures, and the use of representative microbial and lower-trophic benthic and pelagic Arctic species at appropriate temperatures and salinities.
In Situ Burning
In situ burning is a viable spill response countermeasure in the Arctic. Ice can often provide a natural barrier to maintain the necessary oil thicknesses for ignition, without the need for booms. With relatively fresh oil that is wind herded against an ice edge, or collects in melt pools in the spring, removal efficiencies in excess of 90% are achievable through in situ burning. However, in very open drift ice conditions, oil spills can rapidly spread too thinly to ignite. To improve the limits of
in situ burning, further research is needed to evaluate improved ignition methods and to explore the use of aerially applied oil-herding chemicals at different spatial scales and with different oil types, including weathered states.
Mechanical Containment and Recovery
Mechanical containment and recovery removes oil from the marine environment, rather than adding chemicals or generating burn residue. However, when dealing with large offshore spills, the oil can quickly spread to a thin sheen, which makes it difficult to achieve a significant rate of recovery. Large quantities of containment boom and hundreds of vessels and skimmers are needed to concentrate thin, rapidly spreading oil slicks. The lack of approved disposal sites on land for contaminated water and waste, lack of port facilities to accept deep-draft vessels, and limited airlift capability to remote communities complicates the large-scale use of mechanical containment and recovery to respond to Arctic spills. Mechanical recovery can provide a viable option for small, contained spills in pack ice, or for larger spills under fast ice. Arctic-relevant mechanical recovery improvements include cold temperature operability and independent propulsion; however, response to a large offshore spill in the U.S. Arctic is unlikely to rely only upon mechanical containment and recovery because of its inefficiency.
Detection, Monitoring, and Modeling
To mount an effective response, it is critical to know where spilled oil is at any given time. Over the past decade, several large government and industry programs have evaluated the variety of rapidly developing remote sensing technologies used for detection, including sonar, synthetic aperture radar, infrared, and ground-penetrating radar. In addition, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles for oil detection and tracking has grown. However, there will always be a need for aerial observers to map oiled areas and transmit critical information to response crews. Detection methods work hand-in-hand with advanced oil spill trajectory modeling to understand where oil is moving. Promising advances in modeling have accounted for the incorporation of oil into brine channels as well as the bulk freezing of oil into ice, although better modeling of under-ice roughness is still needed. Investment in detection and response strategies for oil on, within, and trapped under ice will be necessary for contingency planning. In addition, robust operational meteorological-ocean-ice and oil spill trajectory forecasting models for the U.S. Arctic would further improve oil spill response efforts.
Arctic oil spill research and development needs for improved decision support include:
- Improving methods for in situ burning, dispersant application, and use of chemical herders;
- Understanding limitations of mechanical recovery in both open water and ice;
- Investing in under-ice oil detection and response strategies;
- Integrating remote sensing and observational techniques for detecting and tracking ice and oil;
- Determining and verifying biodegradation rates for hydrocarbons in offshore environments;
- Evaluating the toxicity of dispersants and chemically dispersed oil on key Arctic marine species; and
- Summarizing relevant ongoing and planned research worldwide to achieve synergy and avoid unnecessary duplication.
Recommendation: Priorities for oil spill research should leverage existing joint agreements and be addressed through a comprehensive, coordinated effort that links industry, government, academia, international and local experts, and non-governmental organizations. The Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research, which is tasked to coordinate oil spill research and development among agencies and other partners, should lead the effort.
OPERATIONS, LOGISTICS, AND COORDINATION FOR AN ARCTIC OIL SPILL
Marine activities in U.S. Arctic waters are increasing without a commensurate increase in the logistics and infrastructure needed to conduct these activities safely. As oil and gas, shipping, and tourism activities increase, the U.S. Coast Guard will need an enhanced presence and performance capacity in the Arctic. U.S. support for Arctic missions, including oil spill response, requires significant investment in infrastructure and capabilities.
U.S. COAST GUARD NEEDS
The USCG has a low level of presence in the Arctic, especially during the winter. USCG personnel, equipment, transportation, communication, navigation, and safety resources needed for oil spill response are not adequate for overseeing oil spill response in the Arctic, and the Coast Guard’s efforts to support Arctic oil spill planning and response in the absence of a dedicated and adequate budget are admirable but inadequate.
Recommendation: As oil and gas, shipping, and tourism activities increase, the USCG will need an enhanced presence and performance capacity in the Arctic, including area-specific training, icebreaking capability, improved availability of vessels for responding to oil spills or other emergency situations, and aircraft and helicopter support facilities for the open water season and eventually year round. Furthermore, Arctic assignments for trained and experienced personnel and tribal liaisons should be of longer duration, to take full advantage of their skills. Sustained funding will be needed to increase the USCG presence in the Arctic and to strengthen and expand its ongoing Arctic oil spill research programs.
Vessel traffic is not actively managed in the Bering Strait or in the U.S. Arctic, nor is there a comprehensive system for real-time traffic monitoring. The lack of a U.S. vessel traffic monitoring system for the Arctic creates significant vulnerability for missions including oil spill response and
creates undue reliance on private industry and foreign national systems. Private receivers are used to track vessels in the Bering Strait and along a large part of Alaskan coastal areas, but there are significant gaps in coverage. Consequently, there are numerous regional “blind spots” where an early indication of elevated risks may not be apparent to officials ashore.
Recommendation: The USCG should expedite its evaluation of traffic through the Bering Strait to determine if vessel traffic monitoring systems, including an internationally recognized traffic separation scheme, are warranted. If so, this should be coordinated with Russia. The USCG should also consider obtaining broader satellite monitoring of Automatic Identification System signals in the Arctic through government means or from private providers.
The lack of infrastructure in the Arctic would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill. Communities are dependent on air and seasonal marine transport for the movement of people, goods, and services, and there are few equipment caches with boom, dispersants, and in situ burn materials available for the North Slope and Northwest Arctic Boroughs. It is unlikely that responders could quickly react to an oil spill unless there were improved port and air access, stronger supply chains, and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies, and personnel. Prepositioning a suite of response equipment throughout the Arctic, including aerial in situ burn and dispersant capability, would provide immediate access to a number of rapid response oil spill countermeasure options.
Building U.S. capabilities to support oil spill response will require significant investment in physical infrastructure and human capabilities, from communications and personnel to transportation systems and traffic monitoring. Human and organizational infrastructure improvements are also required to improve international and tribal partnerships so as to leverage scientific and traditional knowledge and best practices. A truly capable end-to-end system for oil spill response would require integration of Arctic data in support of preparedness, response, and restoration and rehabilitation.
There is presently no funding mechanism to provide for development, deployment, and maintenance of temporary and permanent infrastructure. One approach to provide a funding mechanism for infrastructure development and oil spill response operations would be to enable a public-private-municipal partnership to receive a percentage of lease sale revenues, rents, bonuses, or royalty payments that are currently deposited in the federal treasury.
Recommendation: Infrastructure to support oil spill response should be enhanced in the North Slope Borough, Northwest Arctic Borough, and communities along the Bering Strait,1 with marine facilities for addressing response operations. The scope, scale, and location of infrastructure needs should be determined through structured decision processes, studies, and risk assessments.
1 The wording of this recommendation was edited after release of the prepublication to explicitly include communities along the Bering Strait.
For spills occurring within U.S. jurisdiction, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 provides the necessary legal framework for the responsible party—often the owners or operators of energy or shipping companies—to fund response operations and provide compensation for damages. The burden of cost can fall on the government, however, when the cost of oil spill response exceeds liability limits or when the responsible party cannot be found. The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a fund maintained by the federal government for these situations, may prove insufficient to cover the sociological and economic damages of affected communities. A “whole government” approach that includes the ability to deal with broad societal impacts of a spill may be necessary.
TRAINING AND ORGANIZATION
Local communities possess in-depth knowledge of ice conditions, ocean currents, and marine life in areas that could be affected by oil spills. Failure to include local knowledge during planning and response may increase the risk of missing significant environmental information, yet there appears to have been only modest efforts to integrate local knowledge into formal incident command-based responses. Developing and maintaining trained village response teams integrates local knowledge and utilizes existing human resources for effective oil spill response. The North Slope Borough has a well-developed local emergency response team, and the Northwest Arctic Borough is strengthening this capability in its region.
Recommendation: The USCG and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation should undertake the development of an oil spill training program for local entities so as to develop trained response teams in local villages. Industry should continue to participate in local training initiatives. Local officials and trained village response teams should be included in the coordinated decision-making and command process during a response event. Input from community experts should be actively solicited for inclusion in response planning and considered in conjunction with data derived from other sources. The USCG should set this as an exercise objective in all government-led oil spill response exercises in the Arctic and should set the expectation that industry-led exercises will do the same.
Flexible and scalable organization is important to develop an effective Arctic oil spill response. This can be achieved through drills, case studies, simulation, and organizational learning. To build the systemwide capacity to respond to large-scale, distributed Arctic oil spill response, sustained long-term training and continued resource investments are required. Inclusive and trustful communications, relationship building, and decision making, clear accountability, and ongoing assessment and improvement are also necessary.
Recommendation: Relevant federal, state, and municipal organizations (such as USCG, NOAA, BSEE, BOEM, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, North Slope Borough, and Northwest Arctic Borough), local experts,
industry, and academia should undertake regularly scheduled oil spill exercises designed to test and evaluate the flexible and scalable organizational structures needed for highly reliable Arctic oil spill response.
The United States has long engaged its regional neighbors in Arctic spill preparedness and has bilateral agreements with both Canada and Russia regarding oil spill response. Formal contingency planning and exercises with Canada have enabled both the United States and Canada to refine procedures and legal requirements for cross-border movement of technical experts and equipment in the event of an emergency. Continuing to exercise the bilateral agreement with Russia will enable both countries to address practical issues that could arise in an actual spill. An active exercise program with Russia, similar to that with Canada, could identify problems and resolve them in advance.
The Russian Federation’s commitment to the economic development of the Northern Sea Route has expanded the volume of large-vessel traffic through the Bering Strait, suggesting increased risks of a major vessel accident and implications for environmental impacts in U.S. waters. The resolution of anticipated response problems, including communications between command centers, coordinated planning, transboundary movement of people and equipment, and identification of translators, needs to be accomplished in advance of an actual event.
Recommendation: The USCG should expand its bilateral agreement with Russia to include Arctic spill scenarios and conduct regularly scheduled exercises to establish joint responses under Arctic conditions and should build on existing bilateral agreements with Russia and Canada to develop and exercise a joint contingency plan.
STRATEGIES FOR RESPONSE AND MITIGATION
Oil spill response effectiveness could be improved by adopting decision processes such as Net Environmental Benefit Analysis, by developing inclusive organizational response practices in advance of an event, and by enhancing resource availability for training, infrastructure, and monitoring.
All pre-spill strategies emphasize oil spill prevention above everything else. In the event of an oil spill, however, strategies for decision making and response are critical in order to keep oil away from the shore and to minimize impacts on sensitive habitats, organisms, and people. There are no response methods that are completely effective or risk free. Decision processes that evaluate options and response strategies are critical to an effective response. The Net Environmental Benefit Analysis (NEBA) process provides a framework to determine which oil spill countermeasures will be the most effective and will cause the least ecological damage, based on an analysis of environmental tradeoffs. NEBA incorporates prioritization criteria for the protection of sensitive and important ecosystem components that could be impacted by oiling, cleanup operations, or residual oil—for example,
marine mammals, coastal habitats, fishes, or areas of cultural significance. An Arctic NEBA would also include information on the transport, fate, and potential effects of the spilled oil; knowledge of operational limits, advantages, and disadvantages of each oil spill response countermeasure for the natural resources at risk; and consideration of logistical constraints and cleanup intensity. Because of the range of conditions typically encountered within an area affected by an oil spill, it is likely that a combination of countermeasures, rather than a single response option, would be most likely to provide optimal protection for all environmental resources.
Recommendation: A decision process such as NEBA should be used to select the response options that offer the greatest overall reduction of adverse environmental impacts. In the Arctic, areas of cultural and subsistence importance should be among the priority ecosystem components. In light of concerns regarding detrimental effects on ecosystems, further study should focus on the impact of oil spills on Arctic food webs and dynamics at different trophic levels. The process should involve regulators, resource managers, health authorities, technical specialists, scientific experts, and local experts.
The potential impact of oil and countermeasures on wildlife is a major concern during an oil spill response. Controlling oil release and spread at the source of a spill, deterring animals from entering oiled areas, and capturing and rehabilitating oiled wildlife can help minimize the potential impact on wildlife, the broader ecosystem, and the food web. However, rehabilitation and release in the Arctic are complicated by remote locations, lack of response equipment, concerns over subsistence use of potentially oiled animals, and safety considerations when dealing with large animals such as polar bears and walruses. There is a general lack of scientific study, approved protocols, and consensus among decision makers regarding marine mammal deterrence. Wildlife response plans will need to include key indicators of environmental health, and prioritize response strategies. This includes a no-response strategy, which may be preferable for some species.
Recommendation: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, co-management organizations, and local government and communities are the trustees for wildlife deterrence and rehabilitation. As appropriate, these agencies and groups should work together with industry to explore and improve deterrence and rehabilitation methods for wildlife. Additional research and development for improved methods could benefit from the involvement of universities, nongovernmental organizations, and others. Priorities should be set and regularly updated by the trustees for oil spill response based on the type of wildlife threatened, the season, other factors related to a spill, and updated research and methodology.