As global warming opens up northern waters, countries such as Russia, the United States, Denmark and Canada are maneuvering vigorously to claim their stake of the Arctic region’s oil and gas wealth. Increased exploration and production, however, have raised the specter of what a large oil spill would do to this fragile environment.

While increased traffic in the region clearly represents a security challenge, the greater immediate challenge might be jurisdictional: Who responds when a spill occurs?

Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the Canadian government underwent a fundamental organizational transformation to better prepare for national level emergencies. In 2003, an array of agencies from Border Services to the RCMP and the Solicitor General were amalgamated under one umbrella, the department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (now Public Safety Canada (PSC)). Empowered by the Emergency Management Act of November 2005, PSC has become an enormously powerful ministry with broad ranging authority.

It’s most prominent contribution to response initiatives is the Government Operations Centre (GOC) whose mandate embraces natural disasters, accidents and terrorism. It is the hub of a network of operations centres throughout government and stands on 24 hour alert. The GOC exercises “coordination and direction on behalf of the federal government.” It unites the efforts of all federal departments and agencies during national emergencies.

There is, however, some question as to the apparent conflict of responsibility PSC would encounter with National Resources Canada (NRCan) in responding to a major spill. Following 9/11, NRCan formed an internal infrastructure protection division, which among other things coordinates “emergency preparedness for the energy sector.” Since no major crisis has put the new organization to the test it remains to be seen if the bugs have been worked out.

At the tactical level, the Canadian Coast Guard (under the Department of Fisheries and Oceans) has a responsibility to monitor and augment private sector pollution responses and to act as a major resource by responding to spills when requested by another lead agency. And, of course, the Canadian Forces are a responder of last resort through invocation of Aid to the Civil Power. Clearly then, an Arctic spill could prompt a scenario in which multiple departmental responsibilities overlap.

At present, there is no interdepartmental dialogue (let alone planning) on this issue, which has the potential to tie up virtually the entire response capability of the nation. It should also be stressed that the private sector must be seamlessly integrated into the spill response training and implementation. Proactive measures taken by the private sector will limit liability in the long run. No one company or agency can deal with such a scenario in isolation.

Unique environment
Despite new methods of ship construction and other measures Canada may insist upon for vessels trafficking the region, there are several characteristics of the Arctic that exacerbate the likelihood of a spill: dynamic ice cover, low temperatures, reduced visibility (extended periods of darkness), high winds and extreme storms, to name a few. Also, the deliberate destruction of a wellhead and the subsequent uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons due to terrorist or enemy action can not be ruled out.

Many of the characteristics that make a spill more likely will also affect a coordinated response. Oil persists longer in Artic climates when it is trapped under ice and not accessible to cleanup efforts, and it cannot evaporate or undergo biological degradation. Other challenges include limited access to the oil; contamination of the ice; migration of oil in the ice; deflection of oil together with ice; limited flow of oil to a recovery device; winterizing due to the icing and freezing of equipment; and personnel difficulties working in extreme cold.

Yet, in some cases recovery may be enhanced by the presence of ice. Thick pack ice can support the weight of heavy equipment and provide a stable platform; extended daylight hours in the summer months provide greater visibility; and cold temperatures and ice physically slow the spread of oil.

Technical cleanup
Operations to control the source of the oil and recover the spill are usually conducted concurrently, but the initial priority is getting the blowout under control to minimize the extent of the spill. This would require coordination with contractors who specialize in providing this service for damaged sub-sea completions through a process know as “hot tapping.”

There are three main oil response techniques: mechanical recovery, in situ burning and the use of dispersants. The mechanical containment, concentration and removal of oil through the use of booms and skimmers is generally the preferred method because the oil is actually removed from the sea. Booms and skimmers, however, only function well in relatively calm waters. And the presence of ice cover could physically bar any cleanup attempt; icebreaking capability requires coordination with the Canadian Coast Guard.

Burning of an oil slick in open water or light ice provides an alternative when continued use of booms is not an option (or not in location). Aerial combustion is possible also, which reduces vessel crew risks. For an oil slick on water or on ice to burn it must be thick enough to insulate itself from the water underneath. For light crude this thickness is about .04 in but thicker layers are needed for weathered crude.

In situ burning in open water with solid and broken ice is a highly effective technique, which can achieve 85 to 95 percent removal rates. The residue from such high rate burning is a semi-solid tar, which does not usually spread due to its increased viscosity, and tests of burn residue show no aquatic toxicity to fish. Nevertheless, planning must consider residue removal.

Dispersants are chemicals that break up crude oil into small droplets, which disperse into the water column. Wind facilitates this process but high winds can also create problems during the application of the dispersants. They work well in rough seas and are a good option when the sea state is too rough for mechanical containment. The main concerns with dispersants are their toxicity and effectiveness. For these reasons Environment Canada, for example, is reluctant to permit their use.

Clearly, all three techniques should become part of the Canadian response tool kit, to be used as ice and weather conditions necessitate.

Large response gaps are often associated with the Arctic due to its remoteness and complications associated with ice conditions. Pre-positioning of resources to a forward operating base would greatly reduce that gap. Knowing where the spill plume is going to move is essential to that planning process. The behavior of spills can be predicted long before they occur, and computer modeling is an essential part of contingency planning. The optimum location would also require infrastructure such as a nearby airfield and docking facilities. The ideal site would co-locate with a Canadian Coast Guard depot to maximize interoperability and synergy of effort.

That interoperability should also be enhanced through training. Oil spill exercises in which response operations are practiced are important for ensuring equipment deployment plans function properly, equipment is serviceable and the logistic support is adequate. Realism is critical and personnel have to be prepared for the harsh climate. Smaller command post exercises in which planners and executives deploy to forward operating bases and simulate the notional deployment of personnel and equipment can also be effective.

While there are agencies tasked with aspects of response there are woefully inadequate standard operating procedures for interagency and private sector coordination. As can be seen in some of the technical aspects of remediation, the response requirements present enormous logistic challenges for which neither adequate plans nor resources are in place. The onus does not solely rest on the Canadian government; the oil and gas industry must engage fully with government agencies. For its part, government needs to more clearly delineate agency responsibility.

Whether it is from a shipping accident, an oil well engineering technical failure, an act of terrorism or economic sabotage, the looming spectre of a major Arctic oil spill is a present day reality, the likelihood of which will only become more acute. This applies to the Russian, American and Danish territorial waters as well. The international coordination aspect is equally as important.

The Northwest Passage has the potential to become as traffic-congested as the Straits of Malacca given the shortened Asian-European transit time vis a vis the Panama Canal. The east and west ends of the passage could look like Singapore in 300 years. Global warming presents many serious threats. But Canada is one country that stands to benefit greatly and we must be prepared to maximize these positive aspects. Instead of constantly fostering ecological fear mongering it is time to get on with managing reality.

Angus Matheson is an MA graduate from The Royal Military College and is completing a Master of Science (Oil and Gas Engineering) from The Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. A Reserve Army officer, he works in the Directorate of Land Force Development dealing with Arctic issues for the Army Staff.