Changing Spill Risk in a Changing Arctic Landscape

By Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, PhD

Industry analyst and environmental consultant Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, PhD, takes a hard look at a rapidly shifting operational landscape in the Arctic. Always an honest broker of information, Etkin tells it like it is. 

 
Oil spill risk is present anywhere that oil is present in reservoirs, or is transported, consumed, stored, and handled in some way. The Arctic is no exception. Not only are there oil reserves in the Arctic, some of which are being or will soon be considered for exploration and production, there is also oil being transported as cargo or as fuel to Arctic communities. And, with the opening of the Northwest Passage and other Arctic shipping routes to year-round traffic, there could be increasing numbers of tankers, as well as freight vessels traveling through these areas carrying oil as cargo or fuel.
 
Risk (& Rewards)
Oil spills in the Arctic present a threat to unique sensitive ecological resources in the region. In addition, there is a significant threat to large numbers of indigenous populations that inhabit the region and rely largely on fishing and hunting for both subsistence and cultural importance.
 
At the same time, there are significant changes in the Arctic brought on by climate change. While this has allowed vessel transport, it is also creating concerns with respect to ecological changes, as well as our understanding of the Arctic region’s environmental issues. This changing Arctic landscape is presenting a challenge to risk assessment processes.
 
The Arctic is estimated to contain about 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil, 17 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, making up, respectively, 16%, 30% and 26% of the world’s individual undiscovered hydrocarbon resources. There have been and currently are oil exploration and production activities in several locations, including the Alaskan North Slope. There are also proposed projects in the US and Canadian Arctic including in the Beaufort Sea, off Labrador, as well as off Greenland.
 
Various risk assessment studies are being conducted by government entities, environmental organizations, and oil companies to determine potential environmental impacts from hypothetical discharges. The oil behavior and spread under large and worst-case discharge scenarios are being evaluated. The remoteness of these locations, as well as weather conditions, presents unique challenges for spill responders, which is the focus of some government studies, including one recently conducted for the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) due to be made public in November 2016.
 
But these studies do not necessarily indicate that there will be new exploration and production activities in the near future. Given changes in oil markets, the certainty of future oil exploration and production projects is in question. In late 2015, for example, Shell Oil pulled out of its planned oil exploration activities in the US Arctic.
 
Every Day Risk & Preparing for it
Even without offshore oil activities, there is already a potential spill threat from existing vessel traffic supplying Arctic communities, as well as commercial ventures, such as mining activities in Labrador. These vessels bring in fuel and supplies, as well as transport mined ores out of the region to other ports.
 
Vessels transiting to and from communities or commercial operations are not the only vessels passing through Arctic waters. There are also a good number of vessels in innocent passage that make use of newly-opened waters that are now clear of ice for longer periods of time or are opened by ice-cutters or vessels equipped with ice-breaking capabilities.
 
A five-year risk study examined the risk that these vessels posed to the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, for the purposes of developing an appropriate emergency response system. The impetus for this study was the December 2004 grounding of the bulk carrier Selendang Ayu off Unalaska Island. The Selendang Ayu spilled 350,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil and marine diesel, as well as 132 million pounds of soybeans, impacting 86 miles of beach and causing the deaths of thousands of birds and other wildlife. The spill necessitated the temporary closing of commercial and subsistence fishing grounds, and caused significant response challenges.
 
The Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment Study found that in 2012 vessel traffic data indicated that 1,961 vessels had passed through Unimak Pass in 4,615 transits, of which 45% were engaged in innocent passage. Though they passed through US territorial waters, they were not subject to US oil spill prevention and response regulations, however. A response gap analysis indicated certain spill response options, such as on-water mechanical recovery and aerial dispersant application, would be prevented nearly 75% of the time due to weather issues. The remoteness of the area and lack of shoreside infrastructure would also affect the potential effectiveness of spill response measures.
 
The study recommended a number of measures to prevent spills, including the development of an Optimal Response System with: vessel routing measures and areas to be avoided; stationing of emergency towing vessels; and enhanced salvage capability. The estimated annual costs of the system were $13.6 million per year – or about $13,000 per vessel, though was greatly exceeded by the estimated costs of a major oil spill.
 
In addition to potential new oil pollution threats, there is also a legacy of threats in the form of potentially-polluting shipwrecks. The RULET project conducted for NOAA identified only two wrecks of concern in Alaskan waters, but there are believed to be an estimated 1,100 sunken tankers and larger vessels (over 300 GT) in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters around the globe. These sunken vessels may contain as much as four to 32 million barrels of oil; or 15 to 120 Exxon Valdez spills-worth of oil on those vessels. Many of them are thought to contain other hazardous substances, chemicals, or munitions. About 42 percent of these wrecks are World War II-related; about three-quarters of the wrecks have been there for over 50 years. These wrecks may present a spill risk, and that risk is likely to increase with time.
 
The risk of oil and chemical spills in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters in this evolving landscape present new challenges to the maritime community and others that may be involved in transport and other activities in the region. There are opportunities for cooperation amongst the nations that are located in or have borders in the Arctic or whose vessels transit these waters. The Arctic Council, and its eight member states – U.S., Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden – have made some strides in this area by signing the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in 2013. There are also opportunities for industry organizations to make meaningful contributions in this area. The World Ocean Council has held several summit meetings on this topic. 
 

Risk in the Arctic: by the Numbers ...
90 billion – the volume in barrels of undiscovered oil in the Arctic; 16% of the world’s reserves
17 trillion – cubic feet of undiscovered gas in the Arctic; 30% of the world’s reserves
44 billion – barrels of natural gas liquids in the Arctic; 26% of the world's undiscovered hydrocarbons
1,100 – number of sunken tankers and larger vessels (> 300 GT) in Arctic, sub-Arctic waters
50 – years in age of 75% of those wrecks
32 million – maximum volume in barrels of oil contained by wrecks in Arctic & sub-Arctic waters
120 – equivalent number of Exxon Valdez spills-worth of oil contained in the Arctic wrecks
1,961 – number of vessels passing through Unimak Pass in 1012
4,615 – number of transits those vessels made through those same waters
350,000 – volume in gallons of heavy fuel and marine diesel spilled by the Selendang Ayu
86 – number of miles of beach impacted by the Selendang Ayu spill
13.6 – millions of dollars annually needed to create an Arctic Optimal Response System in the Arctic
13,000 – cost per vessel in dollars of that same Optimal Response System
 

The Author
Dagmar Schmidt Etkin has 30 years of experience in environmental analysis — 14 years investigating issues in population biology and ecological systems, and 16 years specializing in the analysis of oil spills. She has earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology (ecology, statistics, population modeling), 1982, a Masters degree from Harvard University (Biology), and a B.A. from the University of Rochester in 1977. Reach her at etkin@environmental-research.com
 
 
(As published in the October 2016 edition of Marine News)
Marine News Magazine, page 42,  Oct 2016

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