If you think the BP spill is bad....

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.

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Good article.

Junkies will do anything for a fix. If the Gulf of Mexico can become a sacrifice zone to happy motoring, who is going to complain about losing the Beaufort Sea?

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink

While no one may know what exactly would be the ecological outcome of an oil spill under the ice of the Arctic, or its extent, I think it is fair to say, and quite evident, that there would be damage, and a lot of it. The problem(s) is/are to/in identifying and providing the best real-time safeguards against the occurrence of damage, not endless philosophizing or opining about the potential extent. Let's hear from, and listen to, the engineers, the contractors, the ecologists, et al...

What a maroon.

What's most interesting about the dynamics of the spill is that currents in the Gulf will eventually (as soon as a few weeks) carry it around and onto beaches farther up the East Coast. That should make for some interesting politics. Will it be enough to cause coastal Southerners to elect people who aren't ignorant yahoos on these subjects? Eh, probably not.

In other incipient coastal disaster news, in the last few years the Sahara has gotten enough rain to tamp down the dust pretty well, ocean temps in the North Atlantic are at record levels (higher than 2005), and there's no reason to anticipate any help from wind shear.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink

I'm amazed at how little discussion there has been at ScienceBlogs.com about this really important disaster. I would think everyone would be talking about it.

Ironic that this comes so soon after Obama made the decision to lift the moratorium on Atlantic drilling. Right now, all the oil companies I know are scrambling for a bite of that pie, but all that's happening is speculation so far. I wonder if this in-your-face damage really represents any possibility of getting at least pieces of the moratorium put back, or if I'm just dreaming.

It did disappoint me, I have to admit -- claiming to be very concerned with climate change, on the one hand, and then taking real action to support use of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. And don't get me started on shale gas.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 04 May 2010 #permalink

I wonder if this in-your-face damage really represents any possibility of getting at least pieces of the moratorium put back, or if I'm just dreaming.

Just dreaming, I'd say. Any delay in lifting the moratorium will only be temporary. The fire ape will burn anything & everything combustible - every tree, all the fossil carbon, every old tire & scrap of plastic - it can get its hands on before it goes extinct.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 04 May 2010 #permalink

"...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."

You guys are all missing the fact that the oil companies plan on warming the global sufficiently by then that Arctic and Antarctic ice won't be a problem....

steve @ # 7: ... how little discussion there has been at ScienceBlogs.com ...

Only seven recent posts.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 04 May 2010 #permalink

I don't know if you've been reading the National Post lately James, but it seems like daily, there's an article expressing how the spill is helping the oil sands not look so bad.

Because of course you'd want to kiss the face of a tapeworm when it's standing next to the ebola virus.