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Ocean Program

Oil Spill Response in the U.S. Arctic

Oil Spill Response in the U.S. Arctic?
A U.S. Coast Guard Perspective

Frankly, our ability to respond to … a major oil spill up in the Arctic, especially in ice-covered waters, is minimal at best.
—Captain J.J. Fisher (March 11, 2010)

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is raising questions about the ability to respond to offshore spills. Nowhere is this more of a question that in the ice-covered seas of the Arctic. Before the Gulf spill occurred, as part of a one-day seminar hosted by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the Environmental Law Institute, Captain J.J. Fisher of the U.S. Coast Guard discussed the Coast Guard’s ability to respond to a major oil spill in the U.S. Arctic.

During this meeting, Captain Fisher discussed the challenges associated with operating in the Arctic and the Coast Guard’s ability to respond to an oil spill in ice-covered waters. Captain Fisher’s presentation focused on the regional priorities and difficulties of operating in the Arctic. Facing extreme weather conditions, limited ice-breaking capacity, and a significant lack of infrastructure, the Coast Guard is limited in its ability to rapidly respond to emergency situations in the Arctic Ocean. Captain Fisher described a mass rescue operation in the high Arctic as one of the “nightmare scenarios” for the Coast Guard.

He also explained the challenges of oil spill response in the region. Another big challenge for the Coast Guard is a major oil spill up there, explained Captain Fisher. “Frankly, our ability to respond to … a major oil spill up in the Arctic, especially in ice-covered waters, is minimal at best. Now there is no good way to clean up oil in ice. Even oil in the Gulf of Mexico is hard to clean up, but … cleaning up oil on ice is a [more] significant challenge. And that’s something the federal government, the US Coast Guard, and others are going to need to address.” Captain Fisher referred to the need for additional research on response actions to help address this daunting challenge.

Captain Fisher’s presentation focused on the broader issue of coastal and marine spatial planning (CMSP), as part of a one day meeting on March 11, 2010, Arctic Marine Spatial Planning and the Role of the Arctic People. This meeting brought together representatives of US Arctic communities and federal agencies to begin a national conversation about US Arctic CMSP. The discussions centered on the rights, traditions, and experiences of the Arctic people; existing co-management practices; competing management imperatives; and how to build from the existing system toward an Arctic CMSP framework.