Adm. Zukunft: We Are Not Ready for Arctic Oil Spills

Published Jul 19, 2017 9:56 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Monday, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft warned that environmental response organizations are not prepared to address a large oil spill in the Arctic.

He drew on his experience as the federal on-scene coordinator during the Deepwater Horizon response to predict the likely outcome of an Arctic spill. “I can assure you that if there is an oil spill, we’re not going to recover all that oil. On the best of days, during the Deepwater Horizon cleanup, we recovered maybe 15 percent of that oil,” Adm. Zukunft said, speaking at a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration symposium in Washington, D.C. “It was flat calm and we had a fleet of over 6,000 ships out there doing recovery operations, and we had the infrastructure to support all of that. Now you put that many people up in Barrow, Alaska. They better be carrying polar bear spray, because they’re going to be camped out.”

Adm. Zukunft added that ever-present rough weather would further complicate the response. “We saw during Deepwater Horizon, whenever the seas are over four feet, our ability to mechanically remove oil was virtually impossible,” he said. “Four-foot seas up there [in the Arctic] would probably be a pretty darned good day, so certainly environmental conditions weigh heavily in addition to just the remoteness.” 

He acknowledged the low price of oil and the cost of E&P in the Arctic, and suggested that it could be a decade before oil recovers to the point that Arctic drilling would be economical enough to resume.

Former chief Navy oceanographer Rear Adm. Jonathan White also pointed out the problem of ice cover: there are no proven methods of cleaning up a spill in ice. Panelists also pointed to the risks of navigation in poorly-charted Arctic waters. David Miller, VP of hydrographic survey firm Fugro, noted that only about seven percent of the Arctic is surveyed to modern standards – falling to just 2.5 percent for American waters.