Commission calls for better research on oil spills in Arctic

NOAA taking on new projects to consider effects on environment

Posted: Sunday, March 07, 2010

ANCHORAGE - The U.S. Arctic Research Commission says the federal government is not meeting its obligation to pay for enough oil spill research in the Arctic.

A new draft report from the commission contrasts the lack of research dollars with the billions spent by the oil industry in recent years to purchase oil and gas exploration leases in U.S. waters in the Arctic.

Federal research on oil spill prevention and cleanup in the Arctic is "fragmented, uncoordinated, under-funded, and in dire, immediate need of improvement," according to the draft report being circulated by the seven-member commission, which was created by Congress in the 1980s.

The need for better science is getting critical, the commission wrote. The risks of oil spills in the region appear to be growing because of changing climate and sea ice, increasing ship traffic and offshore oil and gas exploration projects, it said.

"We need to see a much more robust oil spill research program in the United States," Mead Treadwell, the commission's Alaska-based chairman, said Friday at a meeting where the report was discussed.

Federal officials responsible for oil spill studies and research planning said Friday they are prioritizing the Arctic for additional oil spill research and are reviewing the commission's paper.

"Our challenge is to take a look at the ideas presented and provide you feedback," said Capt. Andrew Lloyd, chief of the Coast Guard Office of Incident Management and Preparedness, based in Washington, D.C.

"We know that we will have a spill in the Arctic. It's just a matter of when," said Amy Merten of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Response and Restoration. She said her agency is taking on new research projects to consider Arctic spills' potential effects on the environment.

Environmentalists and industry officials who spoke at the meeting in Anchorage said they support the commission's proposal for increased federal funding.

"Up to this point, industry has been handling most of the (research) burden," said Judy Miller, a scientist for ASRC Energy Services. Her firm, a subsidiary of Arctic Slope Regional Corp., is providing ice, weather and marine mammal monitoring to some industry clients in the Arctic, including Shell.

Shell hopes to drill exploration wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer. The company spends several million dollars per year on spill-related research in the Arctic and is "very supportive" of any effort to advance the science, said Curtis Smith, Shell's Alaska spokesman.

The commission is requesting that a federal interagency committee, chaired by Lloyd, update its national and regional research plans for oil spills and fund those plans using a $2.7 billion federal trust fund for oil spill-related activities.

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