Comprehensive Program Needed to Address US Arctic Oil Spill Risk

Biodegradation, chemical dispersants and herders, in situ burning and mechanical containment and recovery are key response options. While in-situ burning has been pre-approved for Arctic use under defined conditions, Alaska has not granted pre-approval for use of chemical dispersants. The Alaska Regional Response Team is responsible for granting pre-approval for dispersant use. This topic has been in discussion for a number of years; there currently is no timeline for pre-approval.

Research areas that would improve science-based decisions about response technologies include:

  • Determining the biodegradation rates of hydrocarbons in offshore environments, and which strategies can accelerate oil degradation
  • Evaluating the toxicity and long-term effects of dispersants and dispersed oil on key Arctic marine species
  • Communicating the limitations of mechanical recovery in both open water and ice

Lack of infrastructure in the Arctic presents a significant liability in the case of an oil spill. To address the risk of oil spills, the United States will need to make significant investment in physical infrastructure and human capabilities, from communications and personnel to transportation systems and traffic monitoring, to support oil spill response efforts in U.S. Arctic waters, according to the report.

“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,” said NRC in the report. “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.”

Placing 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, NRC said.

“Given the proximity of U.S. Arctic waters to international territories, certain factors should be addressed in advance of an actual event, including communications between command centers, coordinated planning, trans-boundary movement of people and equipment, and identification of translators,” NRC noted.

At this time, no funding mechanism exists for the development, deployment and maintenance of temporary and permanent infrastructure. One solution is a funding mechanism for infrastructure development and oil spill response operations is 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.


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