Leading Preparedness for an International Oil Spill Response in the Arctic

by Captain Peter Troedsson

Imagine an oil spill on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon…in the Arctic. Unlike it has in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. has yet to develop the capabilities and local expertise to properly respond to an oil spill in the harsh Arctic environment. The joint Mexico-US (MEXUS) plan, that regulates activities in the Gulf of Mexico, is intended to “prevent, control, mitigate or eliminate the threat of an incident, to minimize adverse effects to the marine environment, and to protect public health and welfare.” As America’s Arctic backyard rapidly opens, with increased accessibility to valuable natural resources and newly navigable transit routes, it’s more essential than ever that we develop a comparable oil spill response strategy for the Arctic.

Convincing U.S. policymakers to invest in our Arctic capabilities will be difficult in today’s grim fiscal environment, where federal budgets are already stretched thin. But scarce resources demand greater scrutiny of their allocation, and greater reliance on inter-agency and international partnerships. Our Canadian and Mexican neighbors have worked with us for years to ensure oil spill preparedness in the lower Alaskan and Canadian latitudes and in the Gulf of Mexico. Bilateral agreements with both Canada and Mexico outline joint response systems and identify agencies from each country that will provide support in carrying out the objectives of the plans. Biennial exercises with our neighbors involve scenarios with major oil spills that threaten the coastal areas of the participating nations. Although all parties work hard to prevent such calamities, readiness to respond is vital.

But bilateral agreements and training regimes are only a small part of the equation for preparedness in the Arctic. In the Gulf of Mexico, the offshore oil and gas industry has been growing and evolving for decades. As a result, an advanced level of intermodal transportation and support infrastructure, including spill response and clean-up industries, is in place. In contrast, oil spill exercises in lower Alaskan and Canadian latitudes have consistently demonstrated the lack of infrastructure which cripples response efforts. This lack is exacerbated by a remote and harsh operating environment. Find Kaktovik, Alaska on a map and take note of the road system, or the next nearest town. Transportation of personnel and equipment, berthing, food, water, shelter, decontamination, and communications capabilities in these remote areas would be a monumental challenge for a large scale response operation. Port facilities in the area can accomodate only shallow draft vessels, and airfields have only short, gravel runways. A lack of  road systems and a complete dearth of hotels for lodging and staging capability complete the picture. A significant investment in infrastructure is needed.

While the U.S. lacks Arctic infrastructure, the Deepwater Horizon incident certainly added to our storehouse of spill response skills and expertise. The U.S. is in an ideal position to lead the way in coordinating and conducting oil spill recovery exercises with the other Arctic nations, Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, and Russia. And preparation for international cooperation makes eminent sense. Although research efforts are ongoing to determine the characteristics of oil spilled in cold water, a spill in the Arctic may affect the shorelines and waters of other nations in the region. Ocean currents will prevent spilled oil from remaining stationary.

The Arctic Council has chartered a Task Force to prepare an international instrument on Arctic pollution preparedness and response which will identify areas for cooperation and information exchange, and make recommendations for the prevention of marine oil pollution. Active U.S. leadership and contributions will significantly boost this effort. Greater preparedness and coordination in the event of a spill will substantially minimize damage. Collaborative efforts in the Arctic also provide confidence building measures with the other Arctic nations and help to assert our position in the Arctic 

To be unprepared for the worst is to make a de facto decision to accept significant risk. Even in an austere budget environment, it is vital that the U.S. act now, given the long lead times required for acquisition, to develop the infrastructure needed to overcome the logistical challenges of an Arctic response, invest in oil spill planning and response capabilities, and mandate (and fund) regularly scheduled exercises involving all levels of responders. Planning for a spill on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe requires regular international liaison and information exchange before the incident occurs.

The stakes in the Arctic are high. The risks associated with oil exploration and production in this region are indisputable, but the potential for profitable resource extraction guarantees eventual exploration and drilling. We must take the appropriate steps to mitigate the risks wherever possible. Together with our neighbors, let’s ensure that we invest in spill response planning and capability, and build a comprehensive, collaborative, and responsive planning system. It is an investment that must be made if we want to safely and sustainably extract the resouces of the region.

About the Author

Captain Troedsson is a Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He most recently served as Chief of Staff of the Eighth Coast Guard District headquartered in New Orleans.

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