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Is the U.S. Ready for an Arctic Oil Spill?

This article is part of an Arctic in Context series featuring Winter 2017 Arctic Research Fellows from the International Policy Institute, in the Henry M. Jackson School at the University of Washington. This Arctic research program is dedicated to improving the transfer of research and expertise between higher education and the policy world in the area of global affairs.

By Valerie Cleland

“It seemed truly like the ending of a world. Seabirds were dying by the thousands in the muck. Vast stocks of salmon and herring and halibut would perish next.” This description in National Geographic of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill is meant to be dramatic. As we’ve seen time and time again, oil spills have devastating impacts on the environment, wildlife, and local communities, and the effects linger long after the cleanup crews have gone home.

Today, as melting sea ice makes oil more accessible, the risk of a spill is moving north into Arctic territories. While a major oil spill has yet to occur in the Arctic, the Arctic Council began to look seriously at oil spill prevention and recovery after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill—the largest marine oil spill in history—which the United States failed to stop from gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and was unable to clean up entirely. If this type of spill were to occur in the Arctic, the lack of major nearby ports and unforgiving weather would make response much more difficult, not to mention the devastation to a delicate and already stressed ecosystem.

The Arctic may hold up to 13 percent of the world’s untapped oil, but due to its fragile and dangerous environment, the U.S. and Canada both placed a moratorium on new oil leases in the region in December 2016. However, under the Trump administration, oil allies Rex Tillerson and Scott Pruitt may influence the decision to lift the ban on oil drilling in the Arctic. Fortunately, some preventative measures have been taken by Arctic states. To avoid an Arctic oil spill and to formulate a response plan in the event that one occurs, the Arctic Council and its eight member states signed the legally binding Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic in 2013. But even with this agreement, is the U.S. ready for an Arctic oil spill?

The agreement is meant to enable cross-border sharing of knowledge, resources, and equipment to assist in the cleanup of large-scale disasters. Rarely do we see preventative policies enacted before a major disaster, especially on an international scale. The agreement states that each country must identify areas of special ecological significance that may be at risk, have appropriate equipment ready to be deployed, and determine who in the government can request international assistance and who in other countries can respond to such requests in a timely manner. The agreement also stipulates that in an emergency, regulatory barriers to shipping across borders must be removed—a direct response to the issues that arose after Deepwater Horizon. But perhaps most practically, countries are advised to carry out joint exercises to improve the ability of responders to work together. In the Arctic, where limited knowledge about the behavior of oil in an icy environment makes the potential effects of a spill difficult to predict, practice is especially important.

The United States ratified the agreement in 2016, a noteworthy accomplishment given the challenge of ratifying international pacts in Congress. The first joint exercise with Canada occurred in 2015 before the ratification, solidifying the relevance of the international Arctic Council agreement in U.S. domestic law. The United States has also identified sensitive areas, participated in additional joint scenarios, and ensured oil spill equipment is available. But although the country has made progress, the 2014 consensus from the National Research Council (NRC) and other organizations is that Washington is not fully prepared for the all the unknowns that come along with an Arctic oil spill.

To Buck Parker, a member of the U.S. delegation that helped draft the Arctic Council’s agreement, one of the largest issues with the Deepwater Horizon incident was the United States’ difficulty accepting help from other countries. While other countries offered resources and equipment to stop the spill and work on cleanup, questions arose about whether these offers would violate U.S. coastal shipping laws. France, for example, offered oil dispersants that are not approved for use in the U.S. This specifically raised concerns about the Jones Act on international shipping and whether this law was hindering the United States’ ability to accept aid for oil spill cleanup.

Part of this coordination must be directed at gathering more information about what an oil spill in the Arctic would entail. The NRC report’s recommendations reflect the Arctic Council’s push for joint exercises, and it advises that experiments with spilling oil in the Arctic will be necessary to better understand how oil behaves in cold and icy environments. Further, mapping and monitoring of the Arctic Ocean need to be improved: Updating nautical charts, mapping the coastlines and seafloor topography, and collecting other data could be vital for ships to efficiently respond to a spill. Research from the NRC shows that increased U.S. Coast Guard presence would allow for a faster response to a spill given the remote location of the Arctic. It is unclear under the Trump administration whether the Coast Guard budget would allow for an increased presence. As of now, the closest U.S. Coast Guard station to the Arctic is in Kodiak, Alaska, more than 900 air miles and 2,000 nautical miles away, a trip lasting about five to six days.

The Arctic Council’s agreement has laid the foundation for cooperative environmental action, but if the Arctic nations truly want to protect the already fragile ecosystem of the High North and the people who call it home, this is only the start. Given the lack of infrastructure, unpreparedness for response, and lack of knowledge about oil in icy environments, a spill in the Arctic today would likely be worse than the Deepwater Horizon incident. The Arctic Council needs to build on the agreement and nations must follow through on their commitments before drilling begins again. While U.S. and Canadian legislation has closed the opportunity for new lease sales and drilling in the Arctic, the risk remains. The cost of preventing and preparing for a disaster is a small price to pay when compared with the cost of a large oil spill and its long-lasting, catastrophic ramifications.

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Valerie Cleland is a first-year Masters student in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at University of Washington. She is interested in short and long-term emergency response in the Arctic and resilience of indigenous communities. For her Masters project, she is working with NOAA to look at oil spill risks with changes in shipping routes. 

Find the lead article to the series here.

[Photo courtesy of Kelly Parker] Share/Save

Anonymous's picture
Valarie,Thanks for trying to


Valarie, Thanks for trying to address a serious issue. There is a common lack of understanding that the USCG cleans up oil spills. They don't. Private businesses do. For a "mystery spill" the USCG hires them. In some cases, non-profit co-ops stretch and do a bit of commercial cleanup work, but for a major Arctic disaster, a bona fide "traditional" (see IOSC Selendang Ayu case study by John Gallagher) spill cleanup contractor is needed. That's why AK Response Company, LLC was founded. The USCG has struggled with setting up true Arctic response capability where a "non-profit" OSRO wants to be the only one in the sand box. But that has nothing to do with USCG "presence". Rather it involves influence pedaling and meddling by an established OSRO provider incapable of doing the job, just like during the Selendang Ayu. I suggest reading your own citation on the Jones Act spill response "issue". You are raising a non-issue in terms of response. (I live in AK and hate what the Jones Act costs me, but that's not related to spills). US Law prohibits oil in water, so spilled oil exercises can't happen here until that is changed. Funding for exercises could help address some of the other issues you raise. Oil spill exercises are expensive, and as I said before, actual hands on cleanups are not done by the USCG, though they have oversight. I agree that Washington is not fully prepared. But those who actually cleanup spills are trying to be, despite the efforts of some entrenched interests. Good start on learning about these issues! Keep up the good work.
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