E&E: NAS oil spill report emboldens drilling foes

Margaret Kriz Hobson, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, April 24, 2014

A new scientific study that concludes the United States lacks the resources and scientific data necessary to adequately respond to an Arctic oil spill is energizing the environmental community’s campaign to ban oil drilling in the ice-laden waters.

The comprehensive National Academy of Sciences report released yesterday found that the federal government needs additional response tools, personnel and infrastructure to address oil spills in America’s Arctic (Greenwire, April 23).

The panel called for expanded, on-the-ground research to improve oil cleanup technologies for use in the Arctic’s extreme weather and environmental conditions.
Researchers also suggested that oil spill responders need “improved port and air access, stronger supply chains, and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies, and personnel.”

However, the study concludes that oil spill response improvements have been set back by a lack of federal funding to address those deficiencies.

Several environmental groups responded to the scientific report by demanding an end to oil development in the American Arctic, at least until the government finds more effective ways to handle oil spills in the frigid North.

Margaret Williams, managing director of Arctic programs for the World Wildlife Fund, said the Obama administration “should not approve further Arctic oil and gas leasing or specific activities unless and until spill prevention and response technologies are proven effective in this harsh environment.”

Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for the Wilderness Society, said the report “documents the reasons why we cannot clean up — and are unlikely to ever effectively recover — a significant percentage of oil from any major spill into the Arctic Ocean.”

“We need to decide as a country if it makes sense to risk the near-pristine Arctic Ocean environment now that we know there is little that can be done to clean up major oil spills,” Epstein said.

Sierra Club Alaska Program Director Dan Ritzman said the NAS report reinforces the environmental community’s concerns that “we shouldn’t be drilling in the Arctic Ocean.”

But Charles Ebinger, director of the Brookings Institution’s Energy Security Initiative, disagreed, arguing that the report is just the most recent evidence that the federal government should fund more Arctic research and resources.

“Certainly we need to spend a lot more on resources, beef up the Coast Guard’s capabilities, make sure that we have onshore supporting infrastructure in place in the event of an accident of any kind,” he said.

“All of that has to be done. But that’s a question of allocation of resources. That’s not saying the Arctic shouldn’t be drilled in.”

“You’ve got companies moving into Greenland,” Ebinger added. “The Arctic is being developed. It’s a question of whether we’re going to adopt so many restrictions that our Arctic either doesn’t get developed or lags behind.”

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D) echoed those concerns. “Arctic development will happen whether we are prepared or not — we’ve already seen significant increases in marine traffic and natural resource exploration by domestic and international interests,” he said.

More studies ahead
The report comes more than a year after Royal Dutch Shell PLC tried — but failed — to become the first company in decades to explore for oil in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The company’s 2012 season was marked by equipment problems, unpredictable ice floes and an oil rig grounding.

More recently, Shell’s Arctic drilling efforts have been delayed by a January appeals court decision invalidating the environmental assessment that the Interior Department used to support the federal government’s 2008 lease sale (EnergyWire, April 21).

But once those legal issues are sorted out, oil industry representatives assert, federal regulators should allow Arctic oil exploration to move forward as they improve available oil spill response technologies.

American Petroleum Institute senior policy adviser Richard Ranger said the National Academy study should not be a roadblock to future oil exploration in Alaska’s northern waters.

“Shell demonstrated to the satisfaction of the agency that they possess the capability to respond to a foreseeable spill incident at this exploration stage” in the Arctic, Ranger argued.

“If exploration succeeds in identifying resources for development, then there are a lot of tasks ahead before those resources could be brought online,” he noted. “There would be additional studies needed, additional preparedness and project design to go forward into the next phase of project development.”

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