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The Cold Rush: An Effort to Protect the Arctic from Oil Spills During Rapid Development

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Arctic ice melting. Photo credit: Collection of Dr. Pablo Clemente-Colon, Chief Scientist National Ice Center, NOAA

On May 15th, the U.S. was given an assignment to create a contingency plan for oil and gas spills in the Arctic. Seven other Arctic Council nations – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden – have to do the same. The need for such a strategy first surfaced due to the Macondo blowout in 2010. The Arctic drilling rig that ran aground in an Alaskan harbor in the early days of 2013 drove it home.

Accidents happen. In the Arctic, like anywhere, the ramifications of millions of gallons of oil oozing into the ocean are multifold and immense, including harm to species such polar bears and whales and the immediate destruction of people’s livelihoods. And this is just the beginning of the cold rush.

The double-draw of the Arctic’s rapid loss of sea ice and an estimated 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, is bound to increase the region’s traffic by energy hungry and shipping nations, and with it the likelihood of a spill. Hence, the need for a good plan.

The Artic Council, an intergovernmental forum, adopted the “Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic,” at its biennial meeting this May in Sweden. The eight signatories recognized that should a spill occur and surpass one country’s ability to respond, it is wise to have a plan in place detailing how to coordinate and cooperate with each other. This is especially vital since large swaths of the Arctic are deemed international waters.

“The Agreement promotes notification and communications in the event of spills and, if needed, will allow for rapid sharing of resources and equipment across borders. The plan also addresses how spills in the international waters of the Arctic will be handled,” said Doug Helton, Operations Coordinator for the Emergency Response Division of the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration, in an email. NOAA was part of the U.S. Arctic Council delegation.

It’s not the first agreement that creates an oil spill strategy in international waters, but it is the first one to address the problems that arise from spills across the Arctic region.

Bill Eichbaum, Vice President of Marine and Arctic Policy, WWF, discussed other strengths of the agreement, including that after a spill and collaborative clean up effort occur, a joint review will take place and be made publicly available. This means transparency is built into the system.

Eichbaum notes, however, that the Agreement doesn’t address spill prevention, nor does it bridge countries’ “schizophrenic” approach to the Arctic seas, both confirming a commitment to work together to take urgent action to keep global temperature below a 2-degree-Celsius rise in average global temperature, and chasing hydrocarbon development in the Arctic. A policy echoed two weeks ago in the National Strategy for Arctic Region, issued by the White House.

There is little question that Arctic development and climate change is a conflictual issue within governments and civil society. Yet, for the Artic Council to begin to grapple with agreeing on important issues, such as collaborating on oil spill response, it shows a strengthening of the Council and a hint of their ability to help ensure that shipping and oil and gas exploration are undertaken sustainably.

“It’s a positive step,” said Eichbaum, “A voyage.”

Robynne Boyd About the Author: Robynne Boyd began writing about people and the planet when living barefoot and by campfire on the North Shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Over a decade later and now fully dependent on electricity, she continues this work as an editor for IISD Reporting Services. When not in search of misplaced commas and terser prose, Robynne writes about environment and energy. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Shoshin 10:13 am 05/30/2013

    Yeah…. interesting… but one problem. The author seems convinced that warmer weather is required for oil and gas companies to drill more. In truth, it is exactly the opposite. The North Slope of Alaska is not some pristine mountainous utopia stretching off to the Arctic Ocean. It is more like a water soaked flat kitchen sponge floating in a sink with one edge pushed ever so slightly down. In many areas, the ocean is merely a few feet deep even miles from shore. Polar bears “swimming” miles from shore are quite capable of standing up and walking back if they so chose. And sometimes they do.

    Warm weather makes working in the flat lying swampy mosquito infested areas of the Arctic impossible as equipment cannot move. Drilling operations need frozen ground and ice roads to get the men and materiel on site.

    If anything oil companies pray for freeze up and cold weather. A warming arctic is the last thing they want or need.

    But what do I know? I’ve only spent a good portion of my career in the north drilling for oil.

    Link to this

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