Recently, the Obama Administration seemed to give unconditional approval to one oil company’s request to drill in the Arctic region, with exploratory operations originally scheduled to begin this summer. However, as many experts from members of regulatory agencies to oil and gas expert witnesses in the industry have pointed out, any company that wishes to drill in the Arctic is likely to encounter many obstacles. Even if drilling is feasible, has the government’s blessing, and occurs under favorable climate conditions, many legal consequences could arise in the event that operations do not go seamlessly. This part addresses the complications that may result from any environmental mishaps, from the perspective of legal expert witnesses in the field.
Unfortunately, the company that wishes to pursue and resume its drilling operations has met with drilling-related problems before. In 2012, when it first explored the Chukchi region of the Arctic, one of its drilling rigs went astray, causing many financial, practical, legal, and environmental consequences. See Nicole Lou, “Getting Approval for Arctic Drilling Might’ve Been the Least of Shell’s Problems,” The Atlantic, May 12, 2015. The 2012 accident was considered to be avoidable, as the drill ship operator had been warned by the ship’s tow master not to continue operations. See id. From a financial standpoint alone, the lost rig was a $200 million ship, a cost the company was forced to absorb. See id.
Moreover, as one science analyst explains, “Another incident could result in the loss of more than just… $200 million… In the Arctic, an oil spill would be hard to control. A frozen sea makes it especially difficult for oil to be cleaned up properly, since petroleum sticks to ice. While oil in warm, well-stirred areas like the Gulf of Mexico can be degraded by microbes, it’s likely too much to handle for Arctic bacteria, which have not evolved the need to chew through oil.” Id. If such events were to occur, one ecological engineering expert estimates that a spill under the Arctic conditions would have even more environmental consequences than the largest oil spill to date, which took place in the Gulf of Mexico. See id.
In the event a spill were to occur, the weather in the Arctic further complicates any cleanup efforts. Companies often attempt to purge spilled oil, but “with winds sweeping at 30 to 50 miles per hour over a mix of freezing water and pack ice, any attempt to purge spilled oil would practically be a lost cause.” Id.
Another option to address an oil spill would be dispersal, where an agent similar to dish soap is utilized to try to neutralize leaked petroleum. However, this method is not without its problems, and as one environmental engineering expert explains, “potentially, thousands of gallons of dispersant would have to be injected. It’s all a challenge of logistics, and it’s particularly daunting here because we are more than 1,000 miles from the nearest harbor. There isn’t a nearby Home Depot to help with the logistics.” Id. Further complicating the matter is the fact that dispersants cannot be used during most of the year in the Arctic region, and such agents could only be used for spills that occur in summer months. See id. One expert, who has worked on oil rigs for over 40 years, has raised concerns with the potentially disastrous impact of a wintertime spill. He notes that, “Oil that escapes goes to the bottom of the ice, and ice is not steady. It’s moving with the ocean current. This ice with oil gas trapped under it would be incorporated into the Arctic Gyre and that would move around the Arctic area. Some of the pollution would reach Russia, Canada, and Norway.” Id.
When the sea is at its coldest, the risks multiply. Liquids like oil do not evaporate as quickly and do not easily get diluted. Accordingly, this “circulating vortex of oil” would not only mean a huge financial loss to the company involved, but would also pose a “major risk to Arctic wildlife.” Id.
The company involved feels confident that based on past experience, careful examination of environmental impact reports, and advice from environmental and oil and gas expert witnesses; it can conduct its drilling operations safely and successfully. It has, of necessity, taken into account data from countless expert witnesses in the industry as to the legal, financial, and environmental risks. However, as the government, environmental groups, and local weather analysts weigh in with the expert information they continue to receive, the risks may seem quite high, with little in the way of feasible remedies should a spill occur. Ultimately, all involved parties must call and rely upon the advice of industry expert witnesses, taking as much care as possible to reduce both the potential for and impacts of a spill in the Arctic.