As Arctic Melts, a Race to Test Oil Spill Cleanup Technology

As ice melt opens the Arctic to exploration and shipping, researchers are testing drones, sensors, skimmers, and dispersants for tackling oil spills in icy waters.

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy—one of two working icebreakers in the nation's fleet—concluded a sobering mission Tuesday in the ice-strewn waters north of Barrow, Alaska. The crew's task was to practice deploying equipment they hoped they would never use: new, high-tech gear for responding to a massive oil spill in the Arctic Ocean.  (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Energy and the Changing Arctic.")

Some of the new technology, which included military-style drone aircraft and an unmanned underwater vehicle dubbed the Jaguar by its developers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was designed to hunt and track oil trapped in or under ice. Other devices, such as oil skimmers and ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), were more robust Arctic versions of tools that took center stage during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest maritime oil spill in U.S. history.

The infamous BP blowout has cast a long shadow over the industry, leaving many wondering if the Coast Guard (USCG) and the oil industry really are ready to deal with a big spill in the Arctic, where the weather is far worse and any help is much farther away. (See related coverage: "The Arctic: The Science of Change.") Add to the mix one more complication: The Arctic Ocean annually freezes into a jumbled, floating mass of ice larger than Canada and Alaska combined. (See related: "Pictures: Four New Offshore Drilling Frontiers.")



Ship spills are another concern. Ship transit through the Bering Strait, the gateway from the North Pacific Ocean to the Arctic, more than doubled between 2008 and 2012. And as of this week 495 ships had received permission to travel Russia's Northern Sea Route this year up from zero just five years ago. Some experts predict that by 2030, the route will carry a quarter of all trade between Asia and Europe. Others are skeptical that harsh and costly crossings of the Arctic will ever compete with southerly routes for shipping cargo, but they see ship traffic increasing nevertheless as nations seek to reap newly accessible resources—oil, natural gas, minerals, and fish—at the top of the world.

Seeking the Right Tools

The rush of interest lent urgency to the Healy's practice mission off Alaska's north coast.

In addition to U.S. Coast Guard crew and the Woods Hole researchers, scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Alaska Fairbanks joined in the simulated detection and recovery of oil from the icy waters. The test flights of small unmanned aircraft systems were the first ever in the Arctic Ocean. "We accomplished all our goals and gathered data to move forward in our mission as stewards of the pristine Arctic environment," said Rich Hansen, the chief scientist and director of the USCG Research and Development Center in New London, Connecticut, who led the exercise, in a prepared statement.

In an interview before the team set out to the test site, Hansen explained further: "We're really looking at how to deploy these devices in Arctic conditions. All the things we are bringing with us have a pretty good chance of working."

But is the Coast Guard really ready to handle an oil spill in the Arctic?

"I just evaluate the equipment for the Coast Guard," Hansen said. "The answer to that question is above my pay grade."

In 2011, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert Papp, was more definitive. Papp testified before Congress that his agency was totally unprepared for a BP-type spill in the Arctic. "If this were to happen off the North Slope of Alaska, we'd have nothing," Papp said. "We're starting from ground zero today."

And yet, it is the question that is on everyone's mind these days—at least everyone interested in either the Arctic's abundant hydrocarbon resources or its increasingly stressed wildlife, including endangered beluga and bowhead whales, and threatened polar bears, walruses, and ringed and bearded seals. The rapid melting of sea ice, with some experts predicting ice-free summers at the pole before mid-century, coincides with another reality:  the U.S. Geological Survey's estimate that the Arctic could contain 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil.

Shell* holds leases for offshore exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, but its effort is on hold while it assesses numerous issues that arose during its 2012 foray in the Arctic. (See related: "Shell Suspends Arctic Drilling Plan for 2013.") ConocoPhillips also has deferred drilling plans, but in Russia and Europe several Arctic oil and natural gas projects are moving forward.

Meanwhile, numerous studies are under way on just how to deal with the inevitable oil spill in Arctic waters as the oil and shipping industries begin steaming north. (See related: "In Kulluk's Wake, Deeper Debate Roils on Arctic Drilling.")

This summer, two U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard vessels tested a "vessel of opportunity" skimming system in open water near Teller, Alaska—a system to deploy local fishing and other commercial vessels to aid in cleanup.

Meanwhile, the world's largest test tank at Ohmsett, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey, spent the entire month of February putting Arctic skimmers and other spill response equipment to the test picking up oil amid blocks of frozen sea ice. (See related: "Ice-Breaking: U.S. Oil Drilling Starts as Nations Mull Changed Arctic.")

Even the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has convened a new panel to investigate the issue, while the oil and gas industry has launched its second large Joint Industry Program (JIP) since 2006 to determine the best tools for dealing with oil in, on, or under ice.

Drilling in the Arctic—as well as cleaning up oil spills there—is nothing new. Hundreds of wells have been drilled in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay alone since the 1970s, and since 1996 the sprawling industrial complex has averaged more than one hydrocarbon or chemical spill a day. Most of the spills are small and on land. The industry has long maintained that it can clean up spills in hard ice or in open water using traditional booms, skimmers, and burns.



But in the shoulder seasons—when ice freezes in the fall and breaks up in the spring—the Arctic Ocean is rife with chunks of ice, and spill response becomes difficult, if not impossible. In fact, in 2003, the last time a National Academy of Sciences panel looked at the issue, it concluded: "No current cleanup methods remove more than a small fraction of oil spilled in marine waters, especially in the presence of broken ice."

Industry experts studying potential response to oil spills in the shipping lanes of Russia's Barents Sea in 2006 came to the same conclusion: "Today there is no proven response method for the recovery of large-scale oil spills in ice-infested waters."

Not everyone is that pessimistic, however.

"Most responders agree that it's challenging to work up there," said Joseph Mullin, who spent 25 years as the program manager for oil spill research for the former U.S. Minerals Management Service and is now the program manager for the current JIP looking at response techniques to oil in ice. "At about 20 to 30 percent ice coverage, booms start to become ineffective because you are collecting a lot of ice with the oil and the ice blocks the oil from reaching the skimmer at the back of the boom. So you start looking at alternative techniques."

Those alternatives include industry standards such as chemical dispersants and in situ burning. Chemical herders—surfactants that cause oil to contract until it is thick enough to skim or burn—are also being considered as a new tool to deal with oil in ice. From 2006 to 2009, the U.S. Minerals Management Service and the oil industry sponsored a series of successful experiments in the frigid waters of the Barents Sea off Svalbard, Norway. The tests were conducted by U.S., Canadian, and Norwegian researchers from several organizations. Norway is one of the few nations that actually allow researchers to intentionally spill oil in the ocean to test recovery equipment and techniques—something the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn't permitted since the 1970s.

In the 2006 experiment, a team from Boise State University used commercially available ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to successfully detect and map 3,400 liters (898 gallons or about 21.4 barrels) of oil that had been injected inside a protective skirt cut into solid ice in a fjord on Spitsbergen. This oil was subsequently ignited and burned by scientists with 96 percent efficiency, more than a month after oil first began to migrate to the ice surface. The high efficiency of the burn rate was no surprise to the researchers, they noted in a summary of this test, because the oil had not been allowed to spread, as would happen in a real-world spill. But the test provided significant results, suggesting that oil weathers more slowly in the Arctic, possibly allowing for longer response times.

In a separate intentional spill experiment two years later using the same equipment, the Boise State researchers strapped the radar to the skids of a helicopter and searched for oil they had spilled on the ice surface that had been covered by snow. They easily found the spill while flying 16 to 65 feet (5 to 20 meters) above the ice. Also in 2008, scientists working with the "Oil in Ice" Joint Industry Project spilled 630 liters (166 gallons or 4 barrels) into water containing about 60 percent ice, and allowed it to spread uncontained until the slick was less than one millimeter thick—too thin to burn. They then sprayed it with three liters of an EPA-approved chemical herder that rapidly thickened the oil to 4 millimeters, allowing the researchers to ignite and burn more than 90 percent of the oil, said David Dickins, one of the leading authorities on Arctic oil spills, who managed the radar and remote sensing studies during the project.

The success of these tests has led some in the industry to suggest that such "herding and burning" with helicopters might be a quick, effective way for fighting a spill in ice.

Old Tools?

Critics of Arctic drilling say the industry is just dusting off the same tools it has used for decades, with limited results. Even in the calm, warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, with hundreds of ships and 10 million feet of boom at its disposal, the industry managed to skim only 3 percent and burn 5 percent of the oil spilled from BP's runaway Macondo well, with most of the remainder dispersed or buried in sand or sediments for nature to degrade.



"When I hear people saying we're using technology from the 1980s, it makes my head spin like Linda Blair," Mullin said. "Well, I'm driving a car with the same technology from the 1880s. Technology is always improving."

The only truly new technique being considered for the Arctic—and perhaps the most controversial—is a direct result of the BP spill: the use of subsea chemical dispersants at the wellhead. (See related: "Gulf Spill Dispersants Surprisingly Long-Lasting.") While several recent studies have raised serious concerns about the impact of millions of gallons of dispersed oil suspended in the Gulf's water column during the spill, oil spill experts and industry executives saw it as a resounding success in keeping large volumes of oil from hitting the beaches and marshes of Louisiana. To that end, one of the JIP's tasks is to improve the industry's environmental data in the Arctic to help create what's called the Net Environmental Benefit Analysis—which looks at the wildlife at risk during a spill, the responses available, and which response would cause the least amount of damage. In some cases that may mean dispersing the oil and letting the marine organisms clean it up. That's largely what happened in the Gulf, where oil-eating bacteria are prolific. (See related: "Gulf Spill Pictures: Ten New Studies Show Impact on Coasts.")  But early surveys have shown that such bacteria may not be so plentiful in the Arctic.

Though the jury is still out on how long it took for oil from the BP spill to biodegrade in the Gulf, some studies suggest a time frame of days to weeks. That could stretch from weeks to months in pristine parts of the Beaufort or Chukchi Seas that have never experienced spills, says Nancy Kinner, director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire that studies oil spill response for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The Human Factor

At the request of NOAA, Kinner's group contributed some data to the first industry JIP on oil in ice that finished in 2010, but she was quick to distance herself from the industry's conclusions. "They are very upbeat and optimistic," Kinner said. "I'm not optimistic. I view our ability to respond to spills in the Arctic and near Arctic as pretty limited. It's dark. It's cold. It's a hell of a long way from any air support. The closest is in Kodiak [more than 900 air miles (1,448 kilometers) south of Barrow]. Their ability to get to the scene depends on the weather and the weather is often not good. We still don't have the capability to respond, not only to any oil release but even the human tragedy.

"What if a cruise ship wrecks?" Kinner continued. "Where are you going to put those people? What are you going to feed them? To say that response technology has come a long way is one thing. But the deployment of these technologies and our ability to have responders on the scene is very difficult. The total response is a lot more than just technology. And we're talking about very fragile natural resources already under stress because of climate change."

For Kinner the bottom line isn't the hardware, it's the people.

"If you look at the causes of oil spills over the decades, it's either weather or human error, because humans think they know better," Kinner said. "It is very hard to engineer out human error."

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that a team led by former MMS official Joseph Mullin conducted a single study on chemical herders, radar detection, and in situ burning of oil in ice near Svalbard, Norway, in 2006. In fact, several different investigations of these technologies took place in the waters near Svalbard between 2006 and 2009, and they were conducted by numerous other research groups. The text now reflects that.

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