As Royal Dutch Shell and other oil companies prepare to drill offshore in the Alaskan Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), a new report commissioned by the Washington, DC-based Pew Environment Croup concludes current response capabilities aren't adequate to contain and clean up a major spill in the area.' Marilyn Heiman, who directs the group's U.S. Arctic program, says drilling on the Alaskan OCS requires a science-based precautionary approach. "And right now, we don't know enough about the potential consequences of a spill to the ecosystem," she says.
Chuck Clusen, director of the national parks and Alaska projects at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that by aggregating the technical concerns associated with offshore Arctic oil and gas activities, the report provides a much-needed resource for officials and the public. "The issues it raises need to be addressed before any further oil and gas activities go forward," he says.
The report states emphatically that spill prevention and response must fit Arctic-specific risks. Where extreme depths are the primary challenge for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, drilling and spill cleanup in the OCS will be challenged by ice cover, subzero temperatures, and harsh weather. Many environmentalists are concerned industrial drilling operations could threaten or harass the region's wildlife, including bowhead whales. Moreover, Alaska Native populations that rely in part on marine mammals for subsistence could be affected if those mammals move farther offshore to avoid boat traffic. Spilled oil, meanwhile, persists much longer in Arctic waters than in warmer seas; microbes are slow to degrade oil under cold conditions, and the oil's most toxic fractions--namely, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene--can persist for long durations before evaporating, posing risks to aquatic species, according to Ronald Atlas, a professor of biology at the University of Louisville. Shell plans to drill during the "open-water" season, which lasts approximately from June through late October. After that, the OCS begins to freeze over.
According to experts cited in the Pew report, surface ice interferes with the booms, skimmers, and other tools used in mechanical oil recovery. Oil trapped under pack ice in the winter can't be accessed for in situ burning, the report...