Full set of tools needed for US Arctic spill response, NRC finds

A full slate of response tools will be needed to address crude oil spills in the US Arctic, but not all of those tools are readily available, the National Research Council said in a new report.

While much is known already about both the behavior of oil and response technologies in Arctic environments, there are areas where additional research would enable more informed decisions about the most effective responses for different Arctic spill situations, the Apr. 23 report added.

“The Arctic system serves as an integrator for the Earth’s physical, biological, oceanic, and atmospheric processes, with impacts beyond the Arctic itself,” it stated. “The risk of an oil spill in the Arctic presents hazards for Arctic nations and their neighbors.”

The council, one of the federal government’s independent national academies, was asked to prepare the report by the American Petroleum Institute, US Arctic Research Commission, US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, US Coast Guard, Marine Mammal Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Oil Spill Recovery Institute.

“Arctic oil spill response is challenging because of extreme weather and environmental conditions; the lack of existing or sustained communications, logistical, and information infrastructure; significant geographic distances; and vulnerability of Arctic species, ecosystems, and cultures,” it noted.

Real-time forecasting

The report said a real-time Arctic ocean-ice-meteorological forecasting system is needed to account for variations in sea ice coverage and thickness. “The system should include patterns of ice movement, ice type, sea state, ocean stratification and circulation, storm surge, and improved resolution in areas of potential risk,” it said. “Such a system requires robust, sustainable, and effective acquisition of relevant observational data.”

High-resolution satellite and airborne imagery needs to be coupled with up-to-date, high-resolution digital elevation models and updated regularly to capture the dynamic, rapidly changing US Arctic coastline, it added. “To be effective, Arctic mapping priorities should continue to be developed in consultation with stakeholders and industry and should be implemented systematically rather than through surveys of opportunity,” the report recommended.

It also called for establishment of a comprehensive, collaborative, and long-term Arctic research program to understand spill behavior in a marine environment, including the relationship between oil and sea ice formation, transportation, and fate.

“It should include assessment of oil spill response technologies and logistics, improvements to forecasting models and associated data needs, and controlled field releases under realistic conditions for research purposes,” the report said. “Industry, academic, government, non-governmental, grassroots, and international efforts should be integrated into the program, with a focus on peer review and transparency.”

An interagency permit approval process to enable researchers to plan and execute deliberate releases in US waters also is needed, it added.

Response counter-measures and removal tools including biodegradation and dispersants; in-situ burning; mechanical containment and recovery; and detection, monitoring, and modeling also need to be studied.

Flexibility required

“The oil spill response toolbox requires flexibility to evaluate and apply multiple response options, if necessary,” the report said. “Well-defined and well-tested decision processes are critical to expedite review and approval of countermeasure options in emergency situations.”

Operations, logistics, and coordination also will be critical, it said. “Marine activities in US Arctic waters are increasing without a commensurate increase in the logistics and infrastructure needed to conduct these activities safely,” the report warned. “As oil and gas, shipping, and tourism activities increase, the US Coast Guard will need an enhanced presence and performance capacity in the Arctic. US support for Arctic missions, including oil spill response, requires significant investment in infrastructure and capabilities.”

It said the US Arctic’s lack of infrastructure is a significant liability which must be addressed. “Building US capabilities to support oil spill response will require significant investment in physical infrastructure and human capabilities, from communications and personnel to transportation systems and traffic monitoring,” it said.

“Human and organizational infrastructure improvements are also required to improve international and tribal partnerships so as to leverage scientific and traditional knowledge and best practices,” the report continued. “A truly capable end-to-end system for oil spill response would require integration of Arctic data in support of preparedness, response, and restoration and rehabilitation.”

No funding mechanism exists to develop, deploy, and maintain permanent or temporary infrastructure, it noted. One approach might be to enable a public-private-municipal partnership to receive a percentage of lease sale revenues, rents, bonuses, or royalty payments that are currently deposited in the federal treasury, it suggested.

Training and organization

The report also recommended that the USCG and Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation develop a spill training program for local entities so villages would have trained response teams.

“Local officials and trained village response teams should be included in the coordinated decision-making and command process during a response event,” it said. “Input from community experts should be actively solicited for inclusion in response planning and considered in conjunction with data derived from other sources.”

Relevant federal, state, and municipal organizations, local experts, industry, and academia should hold regularly scheduled oil spill exercises to test and evaluate the flexible and scalable organizational structures which will be necessary for highly reliable Arctic oil spill response, the report added.

Internationally, it said the USCG should expand its bilateral agreement with Russia to include Arctic spill scenarios and conduct regularly scheduled exercises to establish joint responses under Arctic conditions. The USCG also should build on existing bilateral agreements with Russia and Canada to develop and exercise a joint contingency plan, it recommended.

In the response and strategies realm, the report said that spill response effectiveness could be improved by adopting decision processes such as Net Environmental Benefit Analysis, by developing inclusive organizational response practices in advance of an event, and by enhancing resource availability for training, infrastructure, and monitoring.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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