WWF: Arctic oil spill could spread 1,000 km

arctic oil spill

New research commissioned by WWF shows an oil spill in the Arctic could cross countries boundaries. Creative Commons: NOAA Photo Library, 2009

Oil from a spill or well blowout in Canada’s Beaufort Sea could spread more than 1,000 kilometres across the region’s pristine environment, a new study from WWF has shown.

The group contracted RPS Applied Science Associates to model 22 different spill scenarios and map the potential spread of the oil.

Releasing a study and an interactive platform the group warned that oil could easily become trapped in sea ice, potentially spreading to the west coast of Alaska.

To date, Imperial Oil, ExxonMobil and BP Canada have all applied for permission to explore Canada’s Arctic Beaufort with the aim of cashing in on the estimated 90 billion barrels of oil – three years global demand – that lies beneath the Arctic.

The site due to be studied stretches for more than one million acres and is home to rich and diverse sea life, including the world’s largest beluga whale population, migrating bowhead whales, over 70 fish species and seabirds that call the coasts and wetlands home.

WWF’s platform aims to demonstrate what would happen if an oil spill occurred in the different regions of the Beaufort Sea, and the potential impact on the water, shoreline, sea ice, wildlife and surrounding ecology.

Types of oil spills analysed include shipping spills, shallow-water blowouts and deep-water blowouts, and each scenario is mapped across different severity levels.

For example, the study found that if a deep blow-out occurred at a depth of 1,008 metres in autumn, the spill rate could hit an estimated 60,000 barrels of oil per day.

That would equate to 7,200,000 barrels over 120 days.

The interactive platforms maps the potential spread of the oil well into the winter months.

In some instances, the spills could stretch to Russian and Alaskan territories, as well as spreading across important regions for whales, fish and birds.

The remote Beaufort Sea is the section of the Arctic Ocean – around 746,000 square kilometres large – that spans the Canada-US border.

Until recently the region was packed with summer sea ice, but as the Arctic warms, the ice retreats, opening the region up to potential oil drilling and shipping lanes.

Many oil companies, including Conoco Phillips and Statoil, have Arctic exploration programmes, but hazards in the inhospitable region are high.

Royal Dutch Shell has not resumed its drilling programme after its drilling rig ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska in 2012.

David Miller, president and chief executive of WWF-Canada said:

Development in the Arctic is fraught with risks, and drilling for oil in the Beaufort Sea is exceptionally risky, especially in deep waters. This work will help ensure that we all can see how even minor spills can have major impacts and that these potential consequences are fully considered in planning decisions.

A huge campaign by civil society groups is calling for a ban on offshore drilling and industrial activity in the Arctic, and for a global sanctuary to be created around the North Pole.

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