The estimates of the just how much oil is spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig keep rising. The latest guess — and it is just a guess — is something like 210,000 gallons a day. It is almost certainly going to eclipse the Exxon Valdez catastrophe by the time things are brought under control. Who knows how much damage has been done to the Gulf Coast ecology and economy? But could it be that we’re lucky this happened where and when it did, instead of a few years down the road in an even more difficult spot, say the Arctic Ocean?
Canada has long been interested in allowing the petroleum industry drill for oil and gas in its piece of the Arctic Ocean and now, thanks to the Obama administration’s recent decision, the U.S. is lifting restrictions on the same. Are industry and government prepared for the technological challenges of sinking oil wells deep in the Arctic seabed? Not only is it deep, but for most of the year, access options are extremely limited. A blowout in the winter would likely continue until the summer season allows access.
Nathan VanderKlippe looked into the matter for the Globe and Mail last week:
The ability to drill a relief well in the same season is especially important in the Arctic, where thickening ice typically forces a halt to all drilling by December. If a relief well can’t be completed by then, oil could continue to leak into the ocean for months – possibly years – until the problem is fixed.
But a group of major companies has argued that new deep-water exploration areas in the Beaufort Sea require wells that will take two or three years to drill – making a same-season relief well impossible. They have also said that new technology has made drilling so safe that relief wells are no longer needed – and that, in any case, they are rarely the right tool in an emergency.
The latter argument has, however, come into question now that BP PLC has said a relief well is one of the top options to stop oil flowing from the well the Deepwater Horizon was drilling, and some believe the explosion will derail that request entirely.
“I’m sure the National Energy Board is going to err on the side of caution. … It isn’t going to go the way the companies wanted it,” said Ian Doig, a newsletter writer and keen observer of northern oil and gas. “I mean how the hell do you control something up [in the Arctic] if it gets out of control like what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico?”
BP is among the companies pushing for the Arctic rule change, as are Transocean – the company that leased the Horizon to BP – and Imperial Oil Ltd., Chevron Canada Ltd., Shell Canada Ltd., MGM Energy Corp. and ConocoPhillips Canada Resources Corp.
There isn’t a lot of scientific review of this sort of thing. Most of what has been done amounts to call for more research. Less than a month ago, for example, the U.S. Arctic Commission released a report that concluded:
federal oil spill research efforts for Arctic conditions are fragmented, uncoordinated, under-funded, and in dire, immediate need of improvement.
The problem is no one really knows what a major oil spill would mean for Arctic ecology, particularly beneath the ice.
Good scientific baseline information is lacking for living resources in the much of the region and the need exists to better understand both basic biological features, as well as the spatial habitat of flora and fauna that might be at risk from spills.
…improvements are needed in the ability to clean up oil spilled under ice and only minor improvements have been made in the detection of thin oil slicks trapped under ice over the last two decades. Recovery statistics for mechanical response techniques are similarly disappointing; with large response gaps related to health and human safety concerns of getting response personnel safely to the scene of the spill remaining. Concerns and data gaps exist surrounding the environmental effects of in situ burning, chemical dispersants and herding agents. Additional research is needed in all of these areas.