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Mission Impossible: Oil Spill Clean-Up in Arctic Waters

Drilling Plans Do Not Address Barriers to Spill Response Says WWF


WASHINGTON, DC, February 17, 2012 – The oil spill response plan approved by the Obama administration today fails to address barriers to cleaning up an oil spill in the icy, unpredictable and inhospitable Arctic waters and poses unacceptably high risks to marine life, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says.

The approval by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement of Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc.’s Oil Spill Response Plan for the Chukchi Sea paves the way towards offshore oil exploration off of Alaska’s North Slope this summer.

“The risks and potential impacts associated with this Arctic offshore oil development plan are currently unacceptably high and unmanageable” said WWF’s Arctic Program’s Layla Hughes, Senior Program Officer for Oil, Gas and Marine Shipping. “There is no evidence that oil companies and regulators have fully addressed the obvious lessons from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Given the difficult working conditions and lack of infrastructure found in the Arctic, it would be irresponsible to begin drilling.”

The Deepwater Horizon blowout, which occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, took nearly three months to stop and gushed an estimated 205,800,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean.

A recent study on the oil spill response gap in the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea, adjacent to the Chukchi Sea, shows that no oil spill response would be possible for the seven to eight months of winter. The study’s conclusions are based on primary data on wind, visibility and other climate parameters.

During the remaining four to five months of the year when a response to an oil spill is plausible, high winds, waves, unstable ice and poor visibility would limit the ability to identify, approach, contain and clean-up any spills.

WWF analysis shows that even during the most favorable weather conditions of July and August, a response to an oil spill would only be possible in the Beaufort Sea between 44 and 46 percent of the time.

Limited infrastructure and workforce mean that even in optimal Arctic conditions, mobilizing a sufficient spill response in a timely fashion will be difficult, if not impossible.

Additionally, technical shortcomings and mechanical failures in the harsh weather conditions could cripple any spill response. An analysis of reports from the Joint Industry Program (JIP), requested by WWF, reviewed the latest clean-up devices, confirming that in Arctic conditions existing technologies are ineffective. For example, containment boom systems failed when towed at very slow speeds hauling modest amounts of ice.

America’s Arctic ecosystem is home to unique species such as the polar bear, walrus, narwhal and a variety of seals, whales, birds and fish, as well as indigenous people who have adapted to the region’s extreme conditions over millennia.

The environmental damage caused by an offshore oil spill in the Arctic could be lasting and irreversible. More than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, ecological effects are still being felt, and oil is still found on local beaches.