Consensus Report

Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment (2014)


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The risk of a serious oil spill in the arctic is escalating due to potential increases in shipping traffic and oil and gas activities. To provide an effective response effort in challenging Arctic conditions--and minimize impacts on people and sensitive ecosystems--a full range of oil spill response technologies is needed. This report assesses the current state of science and engineering regarding oil spill response in Arctic waters and identifies key oil spill research priorities, critical data and monitoring needs, mitigation strategies, and important operational and logistical issues.

Maps developed for the report are available for download as high-quality, print-ready files.

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Key Messages

  • Anticipated Arctic development and its increased potential for oil spills in the region drive the need to improve understanding of current environmental conditions, as well as possible changes to ecosystem parameters in response to a spill. Examples of types of benchmark data needed for oil spill response in the Arctic include abundance and distribution of fish, birds, and marine mammals, and identification of rates of change for key species.
  • There is a need for a community-based, multiuse observing network in the Arctic that provides long-term, accessible benchmark information (e.g., physical conditions, biological observations, maritime activity) to support oil spill response and other activities. Current Arctic observing networks are fragmented and do not provide a comprehensive regional view. Effort also needs to be devoted to integrating available data from different groups. Such a system could be a collaboration of federal, state, and tribal governments; non-governmental organizations; and maritime and oil/gas industries, and could be organized by IARPC.
  • The release of proprietary monitoring data associated with exploration activities would further increase knowledge of Arctic environmental conditions and baselines. Making industry and government data more freely available and increasing transparency would bolster the public perception of industry-sponsored research, as would publishing such data in peer-reviewed publications. Where appropriate, communities could also release data that they hold regarding important sites for fishing, hunting, and cultural activities.
  • High-quality nautical charting is essential for marine traffic purposes and oil spill response in the Arctic. However, shoreline topographic and hydrographic data are mostly obsolete, with limited tide, current, and water level data and very little ability to get accurate positioning and elevation. Data from sources outside NOAA's Office of Coast Survey (e.g., other federal agencies, state agencies, academic research vessels, commercial vessels) could help to fill gaps in data collection.
  • Ice data and charts are critical needs for marine traffic purposes and for oil spill response efforts. Ice thickness, concentration, and extent need to be integrated into operational use.
  • Though much is known about the oil behavior and response technologies in ice-covered environments, there are areas where additional research is needed to make informed decisions about the most effective response strategies for different Arctic situations. In addition, there is a need to validate current and emerging oil spill response technologies on operational scales under realistic environmental conditions. A systematic program of carefully planned and controlled field experiments that release oil in the U.S. Arctic is needed to advance understanding of oil behavior and response options.
  • Well-defined and tested decision processes for oil spill countermeasure deployment are critical to expedite review and approval. Decision processes need to include rapid research on countermeasures and be exercised regularly. The oil spill response toolbox requires flexibility to evaluate and apply multiple response options, whether on their own or concurrently. No single technique will apply in all situations.
  • Marine activities in U.S. Arctic waters are increasing without a commensurate increase in the operations, logistics, and infrastructure needed to conduct these activities safely. U.S. support for Arctic missions, including oil spill response, requires significant investment in infrastructure and capabilities, such as transportation, communication, energy and fuel, electricity, housing/berthing, navigational aids, charting, port access, ice forecasting, ship repair and salvage.
  • The U.S. has bilateral agreements with Canada and Russia regarding oil spill response. Formal contingency planning and exercises with Canada have enabled both the U.S. and Canada to refine procedures and legal requirements for cross-border movement of technical experts and equipment in the event of an emergency. Exercising the bilateral agreement with Russia will more fully enable both countries to address practical issues that could arise in an actual spill. An active exercise program with Russia, similar to that with Canada, could identify problems and resolve them in advance.
  • Vessel traffic is not actively managed in the Bering Strait or in the U.S. Arctic, nor is there a comprehensive system for real-time traffic monitoring. The lack of a U.S. vessel traffic monitoring system for the Arctic creates significant vulnerability for U.S. Arctic missions, including oil spill response, and creates undue reliance on private industry and foreign national systems. Private AIS receivers are used to track vessels in the Bering Strait and along a large part of Alaska coastal areas, but there are significant gaps in coverage. Consequently, there are numerous regional "blind spots" where an early indication of elevated risks may not be apparent to officials on shore.
  • The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund may prove insufficient to cover the sociological as well as economic damages of an affected community. A structure other than the National Contingency Plan may be needed to deal with broader social impacts resulting from a significant oil spill. One approach could be to amend the Stafford Act and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 in order to enable funding for a "whole government" method if it is determined that the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund would be insufficient for the purpose. In this case, the National Response Team would need to consider how a response conducted under the National Contingency Plan could blend with a Stafford Act response structure, should the need arise.
  • The USCG has a low level of presence in the Arctic, especially during the winter. Coast Guard personnel, equipment, transportation, communication, navigation and safety resources needed for oil spill response are not adequate for overseeing oil spill response in the Arctic. The Coast Guard's efforts to support Arctic oil spill planning and response in the absence of a dedicated and adequate budget are admirable but not sustainable.
  • Prepositioning a suite of response equipment throughout the Arctic, including in situ burn and dispersant capability, would provide immediate access to all oil spill countermeasures. In remote areas, prepositioning and maintenance of fuel caches could be critical to extend aircraft/helicopter range. Storage and maintenance needs for prepositioned caches will need to be considered, as will the resources to support them in the long-term.
  • The absence of infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill. It limits the ability to conduct routine operations and maintenance, engage local communities, and develop meaningful area familiarity. There is presently no funding mechanism to provide for development, deployment, and maintenance of temporary and permanent infrastructure. One approach to provide a funding mechanism for infrastructure development and oil spill response operations would 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.
  • Conclusion: Effective oil spill response requires improved communication bandwidth and networks; transportation systems; environmental and traffic monitoring systems; energy and fuel systems; personnel, berthing, housing, waste and medical support facilities; as well as civil infrastructure development to provide improved port and air access to remote locations using extended supply chains and an increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies, support and personnel. Strategic development of multi-use facilities (e,g, schools, community buildings, gymnasiums) would enable them to be used as response control centers. 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.
  • Local communities possess in-depth knowledge of ice conditions, ocean currents and potentially affected marine life in areas that could be affected by oil spills. Failure to include local knowledge during planning and response may risk missing significant environmental information, yet there appears to have been only modest efforts to integrate local knowledge into formal incident command based responses. Developing and maintaining trained village response teams would integrate local knowledge and utilize existing human resources for effective oil spill response.
  • An end-to-end system that integrates Arctic data in support of preparedness, response, and restoration and rehabilitation for oil spills is needed. To achieve this, development of international standards for Arctic data collection, sharing, and integration is required. Interoperability between systems would reduce duplication and increase availability of a common operational picture shared among all participants and stakeholders. A standard architecture that synthesizes multi-scale, heterogeneous data from multiple sources, including traditional and local knowledge, is an important next step to address Arctic data challenges. Because a number of U.S. agencies have responsibility for these data and system needs, the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee could act as a coordinating body.
  • Flexible and scalable organization is important to develop an effective Arctic oil spill response. This can be achieved through drills, case studies, simulation, and organizational learning. To build the system-wide capacity to respond to large-scale, distributed Arctic oil spill response, sustained long-term training and continued resource investments are required. Inclusive and trustful communications, relationship-building, and decision-making; clear accountability; and on-going assessment and efforts for improvement are also necessary.
  • An Arctic NEBA process requires prioritization of valuable ecosystem components, including seasonal distribution and cultural importance of wildlife, fish, and other resources; information on the transport, fate, and potential effect of the spilled oil; knowledge of operational limits, advantages, and disadvantages of each oil spill response countermeasure for the natural resources at risk; and consideration of logistical constraints and cleanup intensity.