The Blog Aquatic » Beaufort Sea News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Why We’re Having Giant Waves in the Arctic Ocean Mon, 04 Aug 2014 13:00:47 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

Photo: Jupiter Unlimited

Findings from a recent study suggest that continued reductions in seasonal ice cover in the Arctic Ocean will lead to bigger waves capable of breaking up remaining sea ice and accelerating ice loss. In the past, much of the Arctic Ocean was covered with sea ice all year round. With little open water, even the fiercest storms could not generate big waves.

In recent years, though, sea ice has retreated dramatically in the summertime, creating much more open water. That open water provides ample room for storms to generate significant waves in the Arctic Ocean. According to an article in the Washington Post, authors of the study found that a September 2012 storm in the Beaufort Sea, off the northern coast of Alaska, generated average wave heights of 16 feet during a peak period. At least one wave reached 29 feet in height. The researchers observed that these new, bigger and more powerful waves could “be the feedback mechanism which drives the Arctic system toward an ice-free summer.”

Results from the research appear in Geophysical Research Letters are available here.

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Commission releases report on Arctic oil spill research Wed, 05 Dec 2012 18:16:01 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

Walrus cow with calf on ice. Credit: U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Region

Last month, the United States Arctic Research Commission released a report containing an inventory of ongoing research activities and a series of recommendations regarding oil spills in Arctic waters. The report shows that governments, industry, nonprofit organizations, and others are engaged in a range of Arctic oil spill research development activities. At the same time, however, the report’s recommendations show that much more work is needed to improve oil spill preparedness and response capabilities in the Arctic.

The Arctic Research Commission is an independent federal agency established by the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984. Among other things, the Commission is tasked with establishing policy, priorities, and goals to support a plan for scientific research in the Arctic; promoting cooperation and collaboration among federal agencies active in Arctic research; assisting in the development of a five-year Arctic research plan; and working with Arctic residents, international research programs, and others to develop a broad perspective on Arctic research needs.

The Commission’s November report contains an inventory of past and ongoing research efforts related to oil spills in Arctic waters. The Commission notes that this work “provides a credible foundation for applied research and engineering designs” and “developing more effective response and recovery techniques.”

But the report makes clear that the existing oil spill research is not sufficient. The Commission report highlights the need for further exploration of spill preparedness, spill response effectiveness, and damage assessment. More specifically, the Commission notes that additional research is needed on a host of topics, including issues such as:

- Establishment of environmental baseline conditions;

- Assessment of environmentally sensitive areas;

- Development of oil detection and mapping techniques and modeling of oil spills in, under, and within icy or ice-covered waters;

- Determination of the impacts of response techniques such as burning spilled oil and use of chemical dispersants and “herders”; and

- Assessment of impacts of Arctic oil spills on humans and wildlife.

The Arctic Research Commission’s report ends with a series of recommendations for additional research on spill delineation and mitigation, response technologies for cleanup and recovery of spilled oil, and the fate of oil and its effects on the environment. These recommendations span several pages and include topics that are fundamental to oil spill prevention and recovery in Arctic waters.

If nothing else, the Commission’s recommendations make clear that there are still significant gaps in our understanding of the behavior of oil in icy waters and oil’s impacts on the Arctic environment. They also make clear that there are significant limitations on our ability to prevent and respond effectively to oil spills in the Arctic Ocean. Oil companies who wish to drill in the Arctic–and the government agencies that regulate such activities–should acknowledge these information gaps and be realistic about the limited capabilities of response systems proposed for use in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Damage from a major oil spill in the Arctic Ocean could be catastrophic. That’s why Ocean Conservancy opposes Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in 2013. Instead of moving ahead with risky offshore drilling in the Arctic, scientists need to develop a better understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, federal agencies need to identify and protect important ecological and subsistence areas, and oil companies need to demonstrate that they can effectively clean up a major oil spill under Arctic conditions.

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Not Arctic Ready: Shell Oil Is Unprepared Thu, 16 Aug 2012 15:46:56 +0000 Andrew Hartsig Arctic sea ice

© Corbis. All rights reserved.

For years, Shell has tried to carry out a risky plan to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean. This summer, it looked like Shell would finally get its wish.

In June, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said that it was “highly likely” that the federal government would issue the permits Shell needs to conduct Arctic drilling operations. Later, Secretary Salazar told the New York Times that he would decide no later than August 15 whether to allow Shell to conduct exploration drilling in the Arctic this summer.

August 15 came and went, and there was no decision from Secretary Salazar. Why the delay? The delay comes because, as Ocean Conservancy and others have stated repeatedly, Shell is not ready to drill.

Despite having years to prepare, Shell has been unable to complete a series of required modifications to its oil spill containment barge. The barge, the Arctic Challenger, is an integral part of Shell’s oil spill response plan for the Arctic Ocean. But the vessel is currently undergoing modifications in Bellingham, Washington—far from the Arctic.

Until the required modifications to the vessel are complete, the Coast Guard cannot certify the vessel and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement cannot issue Shell the final permits it needs to begin drilling.

In a discussion a couple of days ago, Secretary Salazar recognized that the decision to approve or deny Shell’s final permits would be delayed beyond August 15. He placed the blame squarely on Shell, saying, “the cause for any delay here is Shell’s construction of its vessel … They have not been able to get it done.”

Shell’s inability to satisfy the Coast Guard requirements is part of a larger pattern of failures. As I wrote a few weeks ago:

  • Shell has admitted that it won’t be able to comply with the terms of its EPA air permits;
  • It has backpedaled from its claim that it will be able to clean up 90 percent of the oil released in a worst-case spill; and
  • It failed to maintain control of its 500-foot drillship—causing it to nearly run aground near Dutch Harbor.

These failures convey a clear message: Shell is not ready to drill in the Arctic.

On top of that, Shell is rapidly running out of time. One report suggests that the Arctic Challenger won’t be ready until the end of August. Even after renovations are complete, it would likely take a couple of weeks for the vessel to travel from Bellingham to the Arctic Ocean. That could mean that the Arctic Challenger would not be in place until mid-September.

The environmental community, including Ocean Conservancy, has shone a bright light on Shell’s reckless Arctic drilling plans, and we should be encouraged by the fact that Interior has taken steps to put safety first and delay its decision on allowing Shell to drill.

However, if drilling permits are eventually approved, those delays come with their own risks.

Federally approved exploration plans require Shell to stop drilling in known hydrocarbon zones in the Chukchi Sea by September 24.

In the Beaufort Sea, Shell has agreed not to drill during a subsistence hunting period that begins August 25 and could last several weeks or more. Drilling can take place after the subsistence hunting period ends, but Shell must stop drilling into oil-bearing layers in the Beaufort Sea by October 31.

Shell has said it will take between 20 and 40 days to drill its Arctic wells. Under these deadlines, Shell would have to rush to complete even a single well in the Arctic. And rushing in the Arctic is not a smart approach.

Drilling in the Arctic Ocean is incredibly risky under the best of circumstances. Shell’s recent history of failures and missteps shows that the company is not ready to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

There’s no need for Secretary Salazar to delay his decision any longer: He should act now to deny Shell’s permits and keep the company out of the Arctic Ocean this summer.

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