As a warming climate opens up new waters to shipping and fossil fuel exploitation, researchers have warned that the US is completely unprepared to deal with an oil spill in its Arctic waters.
This is the conclusion of a report released Wednesday by the US National Research Council (NRC) investigating the USA’s capability to respond to a marine disaster in the thawing Arctic.
The NRC’s verdict is troubling, as it is estimated that 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil lies beneath the Arctic. Of that 13%, one-third is thought to be within US territory.
Oil companies have presently put their plans for Arctic exploitation on ice, as Royal Dutch Shell’s experiences have most clearly demonstrated the difficulties of working in the unaccommodating environment.
Since 2005, the company has spent around $4.5 billion (£2.7 billion) exploring for oil off the Alaskan coast, but is yet to drill a single well. In that time it has seen a drilling rig run aground and lost a federal court battle over the validity of its leases in the Chukchi Sea, all the while under pressure from campaigners and investors to end its Arctic ambitions.
However, Shell and other fossil fuel giants are expected to persevere, and the NRC warns that should the worst happen, the US does not currently have the tools to respond to an Arctic oil spill.
The report notes, for example, that the Coast Guard station nearest to the Arctic is 1,448 kilometers away from Alaska’s North Slope and urges the US government to increase its presence and infrastructure in the region.
The researchers also suggest that America puts aside disputes with Russia to host joint oil spill response exercises, while deliberately spilling a small amount of oil in controlled experiments to understand how oil behaves in the icy waters.
The current lack of readiness leaves the precious Arctic ecosystem exposed to devastating consequences.
The infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 occurred near US Arctic waters, but in conditions much more hospitable for response teams. An estimated 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, 22 killer whales and thousands of fish were killed.
Across the Atlantic, European governments will vote next month on whether to introduce a number of measures to protect the Arctic environment.
The proposals, which were approved by MEPs in a European Parliament vote, include the creation of a sanctuary in the high seas of the far north and binding agreements on pollution prevention for ships and rigs in the region.
That the melting of Arctic ice, caused by global warming, will permit the extraction of more fossil fuels that when burnt will cause more global warming is one of the bitterest ironies of climate change.
Last year, Arctic sea ice cover increased from some of the record low levels measured in 2012 – a fact that was seized upon by climate change sceptics as evidence disproving global warming.
However, this recovery contradicts the long-term trend. One recent study suggested the Arctic could be ‘ice-free’ by 2054.
Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre via flickr