So if BP was not prepared in the warm accessable waters of the Gulf of Mexico, what about the cold remote and inhosbitable waters of the Arctic where oil could take years to break down?
A new report from the Pew Environment Group, published this week, makes grim reading.
It argues that darkness, extreme weather and shifting sea ice could delay efforts to stop an oil well blowout in the U.S. Arctic Ocean for six months or more, trapping spewed oil in ice for up to a decade.
The study, “Oil Spill Prevention and Response in the U.S. Arctic Ocean: Unexamined Risks, Unacceptable Consequences,” is the most comprehensive analysis yet on challenges to preventing and containing spills along the nation’s northernmost coast.
Trying to clean up a spill in the extreme conditions of the Arctic would be on an entirely different order of magnitude than the conditions experienced by Deepwater.
“The risks, difficulties, and unknowns of oil exploration in the Arctic … are far greater than in any other area,” the report says.
The consequences for the Arctic’s fragile ecology could be catastrophic, wiping out populations of walrus, seal and polar bear and destroying the isolated indigenous communities that depend on hunting to survive.
Even getting to the site of any blow-out would be a major logistical challenge. The nearest major port, Dutch Harbor, is 1,300 nautical miles away from the drilling areas in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and what few air landing strips exist are not connected to any road system.
“The Gulf of Mexico catastrophe showed us the consequences of lax oversight and inadequate response capacity, even in temperate waters near population centers,” said Marilyn Heiman, director of Pew’s U.S. Arctic Program.
She continued: “Sites proposed for drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean are some of the most remote areas on earth, and the challenges of drilling are formidable. Until reforms ensure that oil companies can respond to significant spills in real-world conditions, all proposed oil and gas leasing, exploration and development in the U.S. Arctic should be delayed.”
One Arctic country, Greenland, is so alarmed by the dangers of a spill that it is demanding that oil companies bidding to drill in huge areas of its Arctic waters each pay an estimated $2bn upfront “bond” to meet the clean-up costs from any large spill.
The payment would have to be made upfront once companies were awarded a licence to explore a block.
Such a requirement would in all probability exclude smaller deepwater exploration companies, as only the majors could afford to cough up $2 billion upfront.
BP won’t be one of them, as it withdrew in the wake of the Deepwater disaster.
But how long before it quietly re-enters the Arctic oil race
And more importantly how long will it be before we see a senior oil executive saying “sorry we were woefully unprepared for a spill in the Arctic?”