Oil-paid study says Arctic spills easier to clean

Scientists say ice acts as a natural blockade, giving responders more time for cleanup

Posted: Thursday, November 19, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Oil spills in Arctic ice may be easier to clean than those in open water, according to research funded by oil companies that are seeking offshore exploration in federal waters.

Shell Oil Co. brought scientists from the Norwegian nonprofit research institute SINTEF to Anchorage this week to present findings from May experiments run in the Barents Sea above northern Europe, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

The researchers said oil spilled in open water tends to spread quickly and contaminate the shoreline. The Barents Sea testing found that ice can act as a natural blockade, giving responders more time for cleanup.

The findings conflict with conventional wisdom. Environmentalists cite botched spill cleanup experiments that occurred a decade ago in the Beaufort Sea. At the time, the state of Alaska determined that Prudhoe Bay oil field operator BP could not adequately clean spills in slushy water.

Shell invited state regulators, the Coast Guard, advocacy groups, Arctic village officials and others to the briefing of research paid for by BP, Shell, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, Statoil Hydro of Norway, Eni of Italy and Total of France.

The company is trying to gain support from Alaskans for offshore exploration in federal waters. The company spent more than $2 billion last year to acquire leases and is seeking state and federal permits to explore for oil next summer in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, which geologists say may hold vast amounts of oil and natural gas.

"This does nothing to reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic oil spill," said Whit Sheard of Pacific Environment, one of the groups that has sued to block Shell exploration in the Arctic, referring to the research presented.

Several conservation groups and Arctic village governments have sued to block Shell's drilling, saying it could cause pollution and interfere with subsistence whale hunts.

The researchers said they conducted the test by discharging thousands of gallons of crude oil in broken and slushy ice off the northern coast of Norway - such experiments have never been approved in U.S. waters.

The scientists tested several cleanup techniques, including scraping it up with mechanical skimmers, burning oil surrounded by fireproof booms, and using chemical dispersants to force the oil to dilute to the point it can be eaten by micro-organisms.

All three techniques removed most of the spilled oil, said Stein Sorstrom, SINTEF's program coordinator.

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