Arctic oil spill cleanup would be badly hindered

Any response to a possible offshore oil spill in the Canadian Arctic would be severely hampered, even more so than previously thought, the World Wildlife Fund says.
A worker looks over an oil boom in April 2010 near the Deepwater Horizon oil rig leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Deploying booms for a large Arctic offshore oil spill would be nearly impossible because of ice. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Any response to a possible offshore oil spill in the Canadian Arctic would be severely hampered, even more so than previously thought, the World Wildlife Fund says.

That’s because Arctic ice, lack of daylight, winds and temperatures make it extremely difficult to contain, burn off or disperse spilled oil, the conservation group writes in a filing to the National Energy Board.

During the potential Arctic drilling season, it would be impossible to deploy an emergency oil-spill response up to 84 per cent of the time, the WWF filing says.

"We're not against drilling per se, but what we are saying is that it shouldn't be done unless it can be done safely. And what these numbers provide is a very sobering reminder of just how little capacity we have to respond if something goes wrong," WWF program director Rob Powell said Thursday.

The conservation group is participating in the National Energy Board’s review of Arctic offshore drilling, undertaken in the wake of oil giant BP’s offshore drilling disaster last year in the Gulf of Mexico, the second-worst marine oil spill in history. Oil companies like BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Imperial Oil have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to lease large tracts of Canada’s Arctic seabed for exploration.

As part of its review, the energy board, which regulates national petroleum and electricity projects in Canada, asked a consultant to look at how difficult it would be to clean up a potential oil spill in the Arctic. The consultant’s report submitted in July found that an emergency response to a spill would be impossible between 15 and 78 per cent of the time, due to weather and other environmental conditions.

Figures understate real risks: WWF

But the WWF says those numbers understate the difficulties that a possible cleanup would encounter:

  • Oil companies acknowledge that they couldn’t contain and recover oil from an Arctic spill of more than 100 barrels, the group says, which wasn’t factored into the consultant’s report.
  • The consultant’s numbers refer only to periods of open water during the drilling season, whereas drilling can legally continue in those months even when significant ice cover on Arctic seas would make countering an oil spill impossible.
  • The consultant didn’t consider the effects of wind chill.
  • Canada hasn’t approve the use of substances called chemical herders in an Arctic oil spill, yet the consultant’s report assumes they could be used to help with cleanup.

Taking those factors into account, cleanup efforts would be impossible at least 44 per cent and up to 84 per cent of the drilling season, depending on location and month, the WWF says.

"Given how limited any spill response would be, these results must be factored into NEB decision-making processes regarding where and when drilling may occur in Canada’s Arctic," Will Amos, a University of Ottawa law professor and expert on environmental law, said in a news release from the group.

Oil companies are anxiously awaiting the results of the National Energy Board’s review.

Imperial Oil, which has committed to spending $585 million drilling in the Beaufort Sea off the north shore of Yukon and the northwest corner of the Northwest Territories, has said no exploration work will be planned until the review is done. The clock is ticking for the company, because the terms of its nine-year exploration licence require it to drill at least one well by October 2013 or face a penalty of more than $100 million.

Exploratory drilling is already underway on the Danish side of the Davis Strait, between Nunavut’s Baffin Island and Greenland. The area has large reserves of oil and natural gas that could be opened up to exploration on the Canadian side as well.

An American environmental group implored the United States last year to suspend offshore Arctic oil development because of the difficulties of cleaning up a spill.