Gulf spill offers lessons for Arctic oil exploration

Posted: June 01, 2012

With the government on the brink of allowing the oil industry to explore in America’s remote Arctic Ocean this summer, it is worth revisiting some of the lessons learned from the biggest oil spill in the nation’s history, the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Stopping that spill took three months, even though it occurred in the relatively calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico near Coast Guard stations, cleanup equipment, and abundant shoreside support. Subsequently, I was asked to chair a panel of federal, state, industry, and environmental experts to review our nation’s response. Our recommendations are especially important for the Arctic.

The Arctic Ocean has one of the harshest climates on Earth. Even in the summer, conditions are volatile, with sudden, violent storms and shifting sea ice. The shoreline is sparsely populated, with no roads connecting the eight main villages to each other or to the rest of Alaska. The nearest major seaport is 1,300 nautical miles away; the nearest Coast Guard air station is 950 air miles. A spill cleanup effort could take weeks to mount and then could suffer endless delays because of foul weather.

Although preventing and containing an oil spill in these extreme conditions is the priority, we must also have a plan for response. Fully developed and detailed procedures, agreed to in advance, are essential to an effective response. These must address the impact of a spill on environmentally sensitive areas and species, as well as on local economies. This requires a great deal of scientific research along with full and early consultation with indigenous peoples.

Even then, response plans are only as good as the men and women who will implement them. So it is critical that they provide for an adequate number of trained personnel and proper equipment to deal with a worst-case scenario.

Finally, such contingency planning must be tested in real-life conditions. Although we learned from the Gulf disaster what is needed for an effective spill response plan, we are on the brink of drilling in a much more remote and extreme location.

Important habitat and subsistence areas in the U.S. Arctic Ocean have yet to be set off-limits. The Coast Guard’s two heavy-duty icebreakers — needed for search-and-rescue missions and to support spill response and recovery — have outlived their life span; the only remaining ice-capable vessel is not adequate for heavy icebreaking.

No agency has yet required Arctic-specific standards for drill rigs, booms, skimmers, and other equipment. To date, no one has tested such operations in the Arctic Ocean’s extreme conditions. We do not know how equipment, personnel, and chemicals will work in these harsh, ice-laden seas. We all hope that nothing like the Gulf spill will ever happen again. But to ensure that, we need to be ready.

And as the Deepwater disaster taught us, hope is not a plan.

Roger T. Rufe is a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, a former president and CEO of Ocean Conservancy, and a former director of operations and planning at the Department of Homeland Security.

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