Skip to main content

As the oil and gas industry works to convince Canada's energy regulator that it can safely drill in the Arctic's deep waters, it is proposing some creative - and controversial - methods to clean up spills in sea ice: using fires set from helicopters to burn oil and even the propeller blades of icebreakers to disperse it.

Filings submitted to the National Energy Board by Chevron Corp. and Imperial Oil Ltd. provide a glimpse into how companies would respond to a massive leak like the BP Deepwater Horizon fiasco in a northern setting. They outline the use of numerous techniques, including "herding agents" designed to chemically coalesce oil slicks, as well as huge aircraft to spray dispersants and crews to burn oil.

The documents form part of the NEB's Arctic Offshore Drilling Review, which is working to set new rules for the exploration of oil and gas in Canada's Far North. For the oil industry, the Arctic offers an alluring new frontier, a place with the potential for major new finds. For the country, however, drilling in such a sensitive and iconic region has stirred up concern, particularly in the wake of the BP spill. And for critics, the industry's bold cleanup plans give little cause for reassurance.

As they pursue wells in Beaufort Sea waters as deep as those of the Gulf of Mexico where the BP accident occurred, major energy companies have told the NEB that, in some ways, an Arctic spill could actually be easier to clean than an accident elsewhere. In its submission to the NEB's review, for example, Chevron says "unique aspects of the Arctic environment … can work to the responders' advantage."

Ice, for example, can work as a natural oil boom, corralling spilled crude, while long daylight hours during summer months can extend work days. The Chevron document also suggests Arctic conditions "can enhance spill response" by creating a cold environment where oil evaporates at a slower rate - making it easier to set it on fire - and by covering water in ice, which calms waves and makes cleanup easier.

Freezing ice can also lock oil inside its layers; crews could then track crude-impregnated ice floes over winter and, in spring, burn the oil from surface melt-water pools. Spilled oil can be set alight by heli-torches, the industry suggests. Even icebreaker propeller blades "could provide sufficient energy to create lasting dispersion of any exposed oil, even in close pack ice," Chevron states.

The arguments are designed in part to bolster industry arguments that its response ability is good enough that it should no longer need to drill an emergency relief well in the same season - an existing requirement designed to stop an out-of-control well, but one that makes some Arctic exploration impossible.

But critics doubt the effectiveness of some techniques, and say the uniquely fragile life in the Arctic will magnify the impact of any accident. They also point to statements from the U.S. presidential commission on the Deepwater Horizon spill, which concluded that there are "serious concerns" about oil spill response capacities in the Arctic, an area whose remoteness and hostile environment pose "special challenges."

"It boggles the mind to think that industry is asserting that they are response-ready for a worst-case oil spill" in the Arctic, said William Amos, the director of the Ecojustice Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Ottawa, who has also participated in the NEB Arctic review. "Those assertions don't strike me as credible."

Spill removal companies have also testified before the Canadian government that many traditional techniques - like laying boom and skimming oil - either don't work at all, or are substantially less effective in icy waters.

Imperial also makes projections that seem optimistic relative to the Gulf spill. In an Arctic summer open water spill, for example, it says 20 per cent of oil could be burned and a similar amount chemically dispersed. In the Gulf, the U.S. government calculated that 5 per cent was burned and 16 per cent dispersed.

The industry, however, argues that its confidence in Arctic spill cleanup capabilities is based on decades of studies that began with exploration in the Canadian Beaufort Sea in the 1970s - and since then in places like Norway. The Canadian government itself has conducted numerous studies, and industry has shown its ability to clean up oil from, for example, ice in the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Cleaning up a northern leak will be difficult - a fact Chevron acknowledges as well - "but it's not doom and gloom," said Ed Owens, an oil spill specialist who has consulted with Imperial on its Arctic plans. "The impression that people get is of a fragile Arctic, where the threat is going to be devastation. That's not in my view very realistic."

In fact, he said, there are ways in which it's better to have a northern spill. For example, the productive season is so short that birds are only in the area for a short time, compared with the southern United States. Additionally, the Beaufort Sea has natural oil seeps, just like the Gulf of Mexico, and as a result is equipped with the microbes that naturally consume oil just like the Gulf - although they work less efficiently in colder temperatures.

Companies also say they will be able to avoid a catastrophic BP-style spill. Chevron, for example, has detailed plans to preengineer a capping device that could be fitted on a blown-out well. It also intends to design a system that would inject dispersants directly into the top of a well, where it believes those dispersants would be most effective.

As a result, the company believes even a BP-style blowout would last just 10 to 14 days. That means, Chevron argues, that it will require far less spill response infrastructure because, for example, the amount of dispersant needed for a two-week spill is less than for a 90-day one.

"Once you reduce the amount of spill through the capping system, everything becomes simpler," said Bill Scott, manager of Chevron's Arctic Centre in Calgary. "A lot of the issues that people raise - like how many boats do you need - are all driven by responding to large continuous spills. And that's where we need to move away from utilizing technology."

Yet some find it difficult to accept the notion that industry expertise should be trusted, especially after the Gulf catastrophe. Doug Matthews, a northern energy consultant who has analyzed historical Arctic spill research, says industry response techniques have never been properly tested in the North.

"It sounds all very good," he said. "But does it work in the dark? At minus 30? With the wind blowing? Two hundred kilometres offshore? Or just in a test facility in Norway?"

And industry itself is split on how to respond to a northern spill. Imperial Oil Ltd., for example, suggests using a C-130 Hercules aircraft to spray dispersant. Such a method could disperse 15,000 barrels a day "of relatively fresh oil," the company says. But Chevron, in its document, points to the "extreme difficulty" in properly applying the dispersant from the air, a problem that becomes so severe in ice that it's not worth doing.

Even some of the potential benefits of working in the Arctic are largely offset by other issues. The cold that simplifies burning oil also makes that oil linger in the environment, potentially worsening its impact on wildlife. And Northern weather - including heavy summer fog and frigid winter cold - is a major obstacle. Imperial itself admits that in fall freeze-up, the most dangerous time for a spill, conditions would allow use of the Hercules dispersant system 18 per cent of the time and chemical herding agents just 7 per cent of the time.

Follow Nathan VanderKlippe on Twitter: @nvanderklippeOpens in a new window

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct

Tickers mentioned in this story

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe