Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico and Oil

Several articles caught my attention: first, the impact on the Gulf from the largest oil spill in US history, in particular on coral [0], and second, the attempts to get approval to drill off Alaska’s coast [1].

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?
comes in:

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.

7 thoughts on “Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico and Oil

  1. Ed hanson

    Why do you not concentrate on real risks which you have better expertise? How about using your educated knowledge of monopoly and the increasing poor performance of American k – 12 education. Certainly a widespread problem of much greater cost.
    What do you feel about the WWII veteran college education benefits? A good thing? I certainly do. Was that government money directed only to government schools? No. It was government funded education provided by the schools of choice, government or private, including religious schools. No monopoly.
    How about a rousing post supporting widespread eduction vouchers. Government funding with parent choice of delivery of education. Do you not think that competition tend to improve product and delivery? Certainly you can not think that education is a natural monopoly?
    But back to your post, I am willing to take risk, reasonable ones, that is. Shell Oil understands the financial risk of oil development in the Arctic (they know what happened to BP), and certainly has large resources at risk. Shell has a reasonable safety record I am willing to accept, but with the knowledge that even the worst spill is quite temporary for nature, but drastic for Shell. I do not consider my knowledge of oil drilling as superior to yours, but rely on knowledge gained through research of the subject as do you.

  2. Menzie Chinn

    Ed hanson: Don’t think I have superior knowledge regarding education — it isn’t my research area.

    Regarding the temporary impact of the oil spill on nature, well, everything is temporary in some way — even the existence of the sun. But the point of the Reuters article is that the period of impact in arctic climes could be very long in human terms.

  3. Brian

    Mr. Chinn,

    Not only do we risk massive environmental impact but we also import much of our oil, which the race for resource control is bogging the US down in militarism and the Middle East; and on top of that 200,000 people die a year from pollution related asthma. However, on the other hand, we need a real solution to replacing oil than as a main source of our domestic energy, and the only viable candidate is nuclear energy–yet, I don’t hear much of a call to do this from those opposed to oil drilling. If we can’t meet our energy needs from oil, or no longer want to, then what do you propose we replace oil with? And I’m not claiming that you’re opposed to nuclear energy; I only meant it as a general observation.

  4. Steven Kopits

    I’m presenting at a subsea survey and inspection, maintenance and repair conference in Galveston today. Basically, if there’s material oil in the Gulf, no one’s sure where it is.
    I think there is also a wider recognition in the industry that the Arctic is potentially much more sensitive and absolutely no doubt that it is at least on order of magnitude more logistically challenging than the Gulf.
    I personally am not entirely clear on Shell’s ardor for the Arctic. It seems more a gas than oil, and right now, we’re long on gas. There are easier places to find gas for the next several years.
    The Arctic is not a homogenous area, and should not be treated so. The issues off the coast of Greenland, for example, are much different than those in the Chukchi Sea. So using the term ‘Arctic’ in this sense is not necessarily more meaningful than using the word ‘tropics’ in terms of oil and gas. And the risks can be situationally specific: if the Macondo blowout had occurred two miles from shore, this could have been a really major environmental disaster. As is it, most of the oil stayed out at sea and it looks like the natural processes of the Gulf have in large part mitigated the problem.
    An issue that keeps recurring is the technical competence and confidence of regulators. There is absolutely no way one can successfully regulate the industry without either superb technical skills or a meaningful dialogue with industry. And that requires something less than an adversarial tone. Is the administration and the government’s regulatory apparatus up to the challenge?
    If I wanted progress, here’s what I’d do. If I were the government, I’d ask the oil companies for $1 million each to fund a committee to advise on the issue. Put Michelle Foss from the U of T in charge. That’s pretty much it. She would get the job done.

  5. Vangel

    What nonsense. Yes, oil spills are bad for the environment and should be avoided and cleaned up. But we have had many of them without much in the way of lasting damage to the environment. The Alaska spill could not even be noticed a decade later unless one looked at areas where the idiots who helped clean the beaches used steam to kill of organisms that lived there. It was not all that long ago where PEMEX had its own version of the Macondo Well blowout and there was little in the way of visible damage a few months later.
    If we continue to look for oil, find cheap oil, and develop natural resources we will continue to improve out standards of living, create more jobs and create wealth. If we bury our heads in the sand we will have lower standards of living, less energy that is available in our daily lives and we will have to adjust accordingly. In case you have not noticed, poor people do more harm to their immediate environment than rich ones do.

Comments are closed.