Several articles caught my attention: first, the impact on the Gulf from the largest oil spill in US history, in particular on coral , and second, the attempts to get approval to drill off Alaska’s coast .
From the second, Shell Presses for Drilling in Arctic
Shell is pressing the Interior Department to grant final approval for its Arctic projects by the end of this year so that the company has enough time to move the necessary equipment to drill next summer, when the waters offshore are free of ice.
Well, we’ve just experienced a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; while the visible impact on the surface has dissipated, we know that much is unknown about the effects, subsurface. One impact — loss of already dying coral. From Dead Coral Found Near Site of Oil Spill
A survey of the seafloor near BP’s blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico has turned up dead and dying coral reefs that were probably damaged by the oil spill, scientists said Friday.
The coral sites lie seven miles southwest of the well, at a depth of about 4,500 feet, in an area where large plumes of dispersed oil were discovered drifting through the deep ocean last spring in the weeks after the spill.
The large areas of darkened coral and other damaged marine organisms were almost certainly dying from exposure to toxic substances, scientists said.
So, would things be better if another oil spill, even if small, occurred in the arctic? Here’s where a Reuters article entitled Special Report: Oil and ice: worse than the Gulf spill?
But even as Russia opens its northern waters to exploration, there’s reason to pause. In the wake of BP’s catastrophic leak in the Gulf of Mexico this spring, Russian officials and experts warn an oil spill under the ice could turn out far worse than one in warmer deepwater climates. Arctic conditions — remoteness, fragile ecosystems, darkness, sub-zero temperatures, ice, high winds — make dealing with an oil spill a massive task.
At an annual conference for global oil and gas heavyweights held on Sakhalin at the end of September, Russian government officials and offshore industry professionals paid close attention to the dangers of drilling on the Arctic continental shelf. “I have attended 13 of the 14 Sakhalin oil conferences, and this is the first where government regulators were visibly and vocally concerned about offshore oil spill risks,” says Michael Bradshaw, an expert on Russia’s Far East energy industry and professor at the University of Leicester.
It’s not that a spill is more likely in the Arctic than in a warmer, deep-water locale, says Nils Masvie, a director at Norwegian offshore risk-assessment firm Det Norske Veritas. “But you cannot extrapolate and say the risk is the same in a cold climate. No, the risk is higher.”
That’s because it’s so much harder to manage a spill and offshore emergency in the ice and dark. “Sometimes search and rescue operations stop in the evening because it is too dark, resuming again at eight o’clock when the light returns. But if something happens on the Arctic Barents Sea in November it would be, ‘OK, we’ll come back for you in March,’” says Masvie, whose company verifies and certifies equipment used in offshore oil and gas production, such as the Nord Stream gas pipeline being built under the Baltic Sea for Russian gas giant Gazprom.
One of the worst spills occurred in August, 1994, when the aging pipeline network in the northern Komi Republic sprang a leak.
The oil spill was officially put at 79,000 tonnes, or 585,000 barrels, though independent estimates put it at up to 2 million barrels. At the high end that would have been half as big as BP’s 4 million barrel Gulf disaster. Two months after the spill started, heavy rains broke a dam that contained the oil, releasing a massive slick into rivers and across forested tundra near the city of Usinsk.
Komi borders the Arctic Circle where the cold makes it hard for oil to evaporate. The oil that didn’t immediately spill into the Arctic Ocean-bound Kolva, Usa and Pechora rivers spread over 186 sq km (72 square miles) of marshland and tundra. There it froze during winter months, according to an environmental case study by the American University in Washington.
The following spring, the oil from the frozen tundra washed back into the streams, seeping into the surrounding vegetation or traveling further down the Pechora to empty into the Barents Sea. A Greenpeace witness reported that April, “as we feared, the spring has brought a deadly tide of oil over the area. There are acres and acres of blackened marshland, and every river and stream has oil in it.”
Something to remember, when next we hear the refrain, “Drill, baby, drill!. (And if you thought US technology would be less susceptible to systems failures, consider this bit of news regarding the Trans-Alaska pipeline, from May this year.)
For more on the economic impact of exploitation of oil reserves in Alaska (specifically ANWR), see this post.