Lots of folks are eager to send ships and oil rigs toward Svalbard’s warming waters, but few are prepared to deal with what happens when mishaps result in fuel and oil spills in the still-harsh Arctic environment.
That assessment, widely discussed by participants at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø this week, is the motivation for a large-scale emergency exercise simulating a major oil spill scheduled in Svalbard from Sept. 27-29.
“A lack of municipal/regional emergency preparedness against acute pollution means the Norwegian Coastal Administration must reinforce The Governor of Svalbard’s initial response and probably quickly take over the leadership of a major campaign,” the coastal administration declared in a press release.
It will be the second large-scale emergency exercise within two years. Several hundred professionals and volunteers with more than 20 agencies in three countries participated in a three-day simulation of an explosion and fire aboard a large cruise ship in November of 2014. That exercise exposed, among other things, Longyearbyen’s lack of ability to treat a large number of people with injuries at once and a plan to efficiently use the resources it does have.
The oil spill exercise, which will include government and oil industry participants from Norwegian and other entities, will focus on quick notification to officials such as the governor who are responsible for initially containment the spill, followed by coordination among all respondents, according to the NCA’s press release.
An emergency response analysis regarding oil spills conducted for Svalbard in 2014 revealed a need for equipment and expertise to handle an incident in this area – particularly under snowy and icy conditions, according to the coastal administration. Among the study’s findings what that an oil spill of some size is likely to occur every six years.
“Bjørnøya and the western part of Spitsbergen are classified as the areas with highest environmental risk,” the study notes. “These are also the areas where the chance of an incident is most likely to occur.”
Among the most urgent needs is research “to find and provide the most adaptive equipment for chemical dispersion” and/or other cleanup methods.
“In the research area distances are long and available resources few,” the analysis notes. “Thus, resources that can work independently are needed. This includes vessels used for chemical dispersion, and collection of oil from sea and shorelines.”
Johan Marius Ly, the coastal administration’s director of emergency preparedness, told Arctic Frontiers attendees the agency is increasingly focusing on cleanups in extreme environments since a 2011 spill in Oslo Fjord in such conditions revealed numerous weaknesses.
“Our goal is that Norway will be the world leader for oil spill response in the Arctic,” he said.
Cruise ship and commercial shipping traffic in and near Svalbard is expected to increase significantly during the next few decades. Norway is also aggressively pushing oil exploration efforts in the far north – and conducted seismic tests within the archipelago itself despite a drilling ban – despite a collapse in oil prices. In fact, Norwegian Minister of Petroleum and Energy Tord Lien argues the price crash means political and industry officials should be even more eager to drill in the Arctic.
“Norway has significant untapped oil and gas resources in the Barents Sea, and wants to remain a long term and secure supplier of gas to the EU,” Lien told conference participants. “We will continue to award new licenses in mature areas every year.”