Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. In the days that followed, the tanker spilled approximately 11 million gallons of oil into the sound. Oil from the tanker eventually affected roughly 1,300 miles of coastline, some of it more than 450 miles away from the site of the spill. Experts estimate that the spill killed roughly 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales. Although the Exxon Valdez oil spill was not the biggest oil spill in the world, it is still widely considered to have caused more environmental damage than any other.
The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill is a good opportunity to evaluate the threat of an oil spill in the Arctic. In recent years, oil companies have expressed great interest in drilling in Arctic waters off the north and northwest coasts of Alaska. In addition, decreasing levels of summer sea ice mean that Arctic waters are experiencing more vessel traffic. Both drilling and shipping activities have the potential to cause a catastrophic oil spill in the Arctic region. What lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill can be applied to the Arctic?
• Be realistic about our ability to clean up spilled oil. Of the 11 million gallons of oil that spilled in Prince William Sound in 1989, responders were able to recover only about 14 percent. More recently, during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, on-water skimming resulted in the removal of just 3 percent of the total volume of oil released. In other words, once a significant volume of oil is in the water, it is all but impossible to remove it effectively. In fact, no existing technology has proven effective in removing oil from icy water, or cleaning oil that has collected under sea ice.
• Things won’t be any easier in Arctic conditions. The Exxon Valdez spill occurred in the comparatively sheltered waters of Prince William Sound, where environmental conditions were relatively favorable for spill response. In contrast, if an oil spill occurred in Arctic waters, response efforts could be hampered by extreme cold, fog, hurricane-force winds, low light conditions or constantly changing ice conditions. In fact, it is likely adverse weather, sea or ice conditions would make it impossible to implement any spill response measures at all for significant periods of time.
• Deploying spill response assets in the remote Arctic will be a significant challenge. The U.S. Arctic is incredibly remote. There are no major highways at all. Only two airports in the region can handle cargo planes, and they service only a small fraction of the Arctic coast. The nearest U.S. Coast Guard base is 950 air miles from Barrow, Alaska, and the nearest major port, Dutch Harbor, is more than 1,000 miles from proposed drilling sites in the Arctic Ocean. In the case of an oil spill in the Arctic, remoteness and lack of infrastructure would be major obstacles to the effective deployment of spill response assets.
•Impacts could be catastrophic. A significant oil spill could cause irreparable harm to the Arctic marine ecosystem. Arctic waters are home to species found nowhere else on earth, including polar bears, ice-dependent seals and bowhead whales. Thousands of seabirds depend on the region’s rich waters. Arctic people are also part of the ecosystem. Many Arctic communities engage in subsistence hunting practices that stretch back for untold generations, and their food security is directly linked to an intact marine environment.
The stakes are high in the Arctic, and we must make informed and thoughtful decisions about whether, where and under what conditions we allow industrial activities. The most ecologically sensitive areas—including areas that support subsistence hunting activities—should be off-limits to industry. In areas where development is permitted, there should be a rigorous focus on preventing oil spills by insisting on the highest safety and environmental standards.
Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, there is still oil beneath the surface of some Prince William Sound beaches. By taking a cautious approach to industrial activity, we can help ensure that Arctic waters and coasts avoid the same fate.