Arctic Oil Spill Containment and Cleanup

With any Arctic drilling, the possibility of an arctic oil spill in the highly remote regions offshore of Alaska increases. This has become a key focal point for the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) to ensure that drilling and production is not only done in the safest manner, but that adequate oil spill response resources are readily available to handle the harsh environment when a spill occurs. 

Many lessons were learned during the April 2010 Macondo incident in the Gulf of Mexico, and as a result, both the USCG and BSEE have increased their oversight of Oil Spill Response Plans (OSRP) and their ability to rapidly coordinate with local, state and federal agencies, as well as with local communities, to bring resources to bear to effectively handle a theoretical Worst Case Discharge (WCD). By all measures, the Arctic Region will be more challenging than the Gulf of Mexico for well blowouts, oil spill containment, and oil recovery due to the remote and unforgiving environment, lack of infrastructure, logistical difficulties, potential ice, harsh weather, and high sea states.  Environmental conditions can be at their most extreme in the Arctic with limited visibility increasing the risk from ice.

Moving ice, storms, high winds, low temperatures, and long periods of darkness present operational challenges and increased risk to the safety of life, on-water assets, and existing well operations. Limited visibility reduces the amount of information that crews can gain from direct observation. Navigation by dead-reckoning becomes problematic, so sophisticated global positioning equipment and vessel and oil tracking tools are needed to coordinate any cleanup activity. While prevention is always the key with plans and contingencies required for the most likely scenarios, BSEE has issued more stringent regulations, such that oil spill planning will inevitably result into more restrictive requirements for offshore operations in the Arctic.

Controlling and recovering oil from Arctic offshore spills will depend heavily on prepositioned equipment, adequate ice-capable vessel support, and highly trained personnel with Arctic cleanup experience. These must have the ability to rapidly organize into a highly-effective Incident Command System (ICS) organization that can integrate government agencies and affected stakeholders. Because of the potential expense of dealing with an Arctic spill, the experiences gained from the Macondo spill will greatly assist those companies in developing OSRPs that will satisfy regulators and prepare companies to deal with any exigent circumstance.

Oil and gas development and the transport of oil are not new to the Alaska frontier.  The U.S. Territorial Arctic Region have always adapted to the needs of its citizens in protecting the environment.  Oil spill response organizations such as SEAPRO, Chadux, SERVS, and CISPRI have carved out niches within the state of Alaska to provide coverage in specific regions for shipping and refining of oil.  Others, such as Alaska Clean Seas (ACS) on the North Slope, ASRC-Response Organization and Arctic Response Services (ARC) provide oil spill coverage specifically for the exploration and production industry. 

Many of the best oil spill response manufacturers in the world, such as Lamor, Elastec, and Desmi are developing new oil spill response equipment that will effectively contain and cleanup oil in ice. The ability to find oil through ground penetrating radar and to corral oil in ice and to “in situ” burn, are at the forefront of improved technologies. Even with these ongoing efforts to improve spill response in this region, in this post-Macondo paradigm, E&P companies will need to heed the lessons learned from 2010 and incorporate them into their OSRPs.  For example, similar type subsea containment equipment currently in the inventory of HWCG and Marine Well Containment Corporation in the Gulf of Mexico will be required to effectively deal with an unsecured source. It is expected that the current BSEE regulations, which determine Effective Daily Recovery Capacity (EDRC) of spill response equipment, will be overtaken by a new model known as the Estimated Recovery System Potential (ERSP) that incorporates such variables as swath width, speed, and on-site recovery capacity into its calculations. There will be a high degree of emphasis on proven mobilization times of prepositioned equipment and the ability for oil spill response equipment to operate 24/7 and in high sea states.  Companies will be required to keep rigorous documentation on personnel training, exercises, and equipment deployments in accordance with 30 CFR 254 and be prepared for unannounced equipment deployments. 

Companies will have to become intimately familiar with the experienced personnel of local spill response organizations and must keep abreast of, and invest in, new technologies that will improve spill response in the Arctic. Experience gained from a history with real oil spills is literally worth its weight in gold.

Endeavor Management’s Arctic Team can provide independent and unbiased oversight when tackling the challenges of the Offshore Arctic. For more information contact Joe White, Artic Advisor, at

Joseph White

Project Advisor

Joe White has over 30 years of hands-on technical support and engineering design experience, obtained while serving on the technical staff of vessel owners and operators.  This has included modifying and upgrading existing vessels for ever-increasing water depths and challenging environments to…