Slick reaction: Big oil: Don’t sweat Arctic spills; Scientists: OK, let’s spill oil in Svalbard and see what happens

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Drilling for oil near Svalbard is safe and any spills will be no big deal, according to a conglomerate of petroleum companies. But folks not reassured by the industry’s slick words might take comfort knowing oil is being deliberately spilled into the archipelago’s pristine waters even as we speak.

The industry report released last week by Statoil and 15 other companies finds “there is no health, environmental or safety challenge that is so significant that it can’t be appropriately mitigated,” according to Aashild Tandberg Skjaerseth, chair of the Barents Sea Exploration Collaboration, in an interview with Bloomberg News.

Furthermore, she said any spills in the Barents Sea are unlikely to reach the polar ice cap since sea ice generally drifts southwards.

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A team of researchers observe how oil reacts in the waters of Van Mijenfjorden in late March. Photo by Christ Petrich / Northern Research Institute.

Such claims have been challenged by organizations such as Greenpeace. Now scientists at the Northern Research Institute are conducting a six-week experiment to see how oil behaves when spilled in Svalbard’s waters – by doing the spilling themselves.

“While laboratory-grown sea ice can be investigated as a proxy, studies have to be validated with field observations on naturally- grown sea ice,” a summary of the project notes.

Martina Lan Salomon, a fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and leader of the four-person project, began collecting ice core samples from oil-contaminated waters in Van Mijenfjorden at the beginning of March, when temperatures were as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius. The team plans to continue collecting samples until mid April – and emphasizes all contaminated water and ice will be removed when the project ends.

“The aim of the fieldwork is to increase knowledge about how oil behaves in sea ice at different temperatures, and also how this affects radar signals,” the summary notes. “Such knowledge is useful for understanding the risk and plan preparedness for a possible oil spill.”

Previous studies involving spills in the field have been conducted since the 1970s, but relied mostly on two-dimensional imagery such as photos and observations of ice slivers under a microscope. The current project plans to analyze both field and lab samples using 3D tomography x-rays.

Similar ongoing and recently completed research in Finland and the United States suggests if a spill does occur, the consequences are likely to be severe.

“We have to separate the oil from the ice out on the sea since all this ice can’t be taken ashore,” said Rune Hogstrom, an official with the Finnish oil spill response company Lamor, in an interview with Agence France-Presse.

He and others are aboard the Finnish icebreaker Ahto removing oil deliberately spilled into the northern Barents Sea. He said among the many challenges is the recovered material is generally one percent oil and 99 percent water/ice.

“An oil spill here is a real challenge when you think we’ve got half a meter of ice, and if you break the ice up then the oil just gets mixed in even more,” he said

Recent laboratory research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks suggests some oil spilled on an Arctic beach would likely evaporate quite quickly, but biodegradation of the oil would be relatively slow, according to Alaska Dispatch News. Furthermore, a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center states “if oil is spilt into the Arctic Ocean, recovering it will be a difficult, if not impossible, task.”

“The challenges go beyond extreme cold, freezing spray, snow, extended periods of low light, strong winds, dense fog, sea ice, strong currents, and dangerous sea conditions to include the limited infrastructure that could support an emergency response,” the report states.

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