There’s still no good way to clean up Arctic oil spills

Ottawa is pouring time and money into the Arctic oil business, readying it for production. But it's ignoring one key part of the job. Oil spill clean up.

Ottawa is pouring time and money into the Arctic oil business, readying it for production. But it’s ignoring one key part of the job.

Oil spill clean up.

There is no evidence that Canadian researchers, or international ones for that matter, have made any progress in developing technology to handle the highly probable occurrence of an oil tanker leak near Arctic sea ice.

The issue was front and centre at an Ottawa committee hearing last month.

“Whether it’s on land or under ice, we’ll obviously use the best technology available,” said federal Transport Minister John Baird during a meeting on Arctic environmental protection on March 24.

The problem is, there is no technology.

There is an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Arctic, according to a US Geological Survey study released in July 2008.

The Canadian government is eager to tap those reserves.

“The present government is very pro-development,” said Yukon MP Larry Bagnell. “There’s no discouragement of it at all.”

But the Conservatives aren’t as interested in finding solutions to spills.

“I have no problem with them moving ahead, but at the same time, what they’re not doing is putting the research into how you deal with oil spills,” said Bagnell.

“There seems to be no evidence that the government is investing in that research.”

Worse, Ottawa is currently passing legislation that would extend our coastal environmental protection in the Arctic by 200 nautical miles, adding an extra 1.3 million square kilometers that would have to be protected.

Canada performed tests in the 1970s to see how oil would react in an Arctic environment. A joint project between the oil industry and Environment Canada conducted miniature oil spills around Cape Parry, Northwest Territories

“The field experiments were conducted by releasing hot crude oil under the two-metre-thick ice in mid-winter near Cape Parry,” said William Adams, who testified at the Transport Committee on March 24. Adams is a member of the Defence Department’s Science Advisory Board, but was a researcher for Environment Canada in the 1970s.

“I can tell the committee from my own experience that, should a well blowout occur or a ship release oil under the conditions found in the ice-covered Arctic Ocean, there are very few options even now for the cleanup of such a major environmental disaster,” he said.

The oil industry contributed $4 million to the $12-million experiment, at a time when petroleum research in the nearby Beaufort Sea was ramping up.

Oil companies won’t risk money and reputation to extract oil in a place that could cost them dearly, said Bagnell. Nor will the government grant a project permit to a company that can’t pass an environmental assessment.

“The projections are that there would be a very significant chance of an oil spill, just because of the way the extraction is done” he said. “So, in theory, a permit wouldn’t be granted because it would show that the technology isn’t there to deal with the significant chance of an oil spill.

“So why don’t you do the research now so that you can permit that development safely?”

While cleaning up oil from beneath ice is one problem, the current technology used to suck up and filter oil-filled waters won’t work in the Arctic because ice clogs up the machinery, said Bagnell.

And research suggests Arctic oil spills are likely.

The US Interior Department did a statistical analysis in 1997 to calculate the chances of an oil spill during the lifetime of a Prudhoe Bay offshore oil platform.

There was a 15 to 26 per cent chance of a leak from a platform, and a 37 to 59 per cent chance of spill coming from an undersea pipeline, according to the Revised Oil-Spill Risk Analysis: Beaufort Sea Outer Continental Shelf Lease Sale 170 study.

In March 2006, an estimated one million litres of crude oil leaked from a corroded British Petroleum pipeline on Prudhoe Bay’s coastline.

It took five days for anyone to notice the leak.

“We don’t have the surveillance to get there very quickly,” said Bagnell. “It could go on for a long time undetected and, by that time, it’s so profusely distributed that it would be impossible to clean up because it’s so isolated in the Arctic.”

Transport Canada only has one Dash 7 to monitor any oil spills in the Arctic, according to Donald Roussel, Transport Canada’s director general.

“We also have additional flying time that we buy from the private sector in the pollution-prevention sector,” said Roussel during the committee hearings.

Environment Canada has also trained an extra 100 environmental officers across the country, added Baird. But there are no planes or boats to ramp up enforcement.

“We are playing catch-up with respect to getting more vessels into the area,” he said.

The government is also looking at using satellite technology to perform surveillance, said Baird.

The oil industry has put time and money into preventive measures off the iceberg-ridden coast of Newfoundland.

The Hibernia project is prepared to deal with six-million-tonne icebergs, even if they’re only predicted to impact an oil platform every 10,000 years, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ website.

The project is also equipped to detect an iceberg from 40 kilometers away and oil companies use water jets and giant lasso’s to redirect icebergs, says the website.

Floating production and storage vessels are able to de-anchor themselves and move if sea ice and icebergs pose an imminent threat, it adds.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers did not return phone calls by press time.

During his testimony, Adams called for more research in clean-up technology.

“A new long-term project of Arctic research on the impact of oil on sea ice should be undertaken,” said Adams. “We can now obtain significant data from satellites, including from our own Radarsat system, and more capabilities are being planned.

“But ground truth is often lacking with regard to sea ice, especially with regard to tracking where the oil goes once it’s released into the ice environment.”

Contact James Munson at

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