Oil spills in Arctic an ‘extreme challenge’ to prepare for and respond to: report

Oil spills in Arctic an ‘extreme challenge’ to prepare for and respond to: report

Canada should look at reducing or banning the shipment of heavy oils in the Arctic, says a report prepared for the federal government.

The report, released late Wednesday, focuses heavily on the lack of resources for emergency response on Canada’s northern coast, including a reduction in Coast Guard services.

“Responding to spills in the Arctic is extremely challenging due to the unique features of this region, such as the presence and extent of ice, the lack of infrastructure and the potentially remote location of the spill,” says the report, the second from an expert panel on tanker safety appointed at the height of debate over the Northern Gateway pipeline.

The risk of a ship-source oil spill is currently very low due to reduced traffic, but that is expected to change with an increase in mining, oil and gas exploration and the disappearance of sea ice in the Northwest Passage.

Canada has work to do

An oil spill could cause significant damage to wildlife, the marine environment and the cultural practices of northern communities, says the panel, comprised of a former president of the Vancouver Fraser Port authority, a former chairman of the St. Lawrence Economic Development Council and a former director of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.

There are no private-sector response organizations in the Arctic as there are on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and that model is not economically feasible up North, the panel says.

The Coast Guard has a more important role in northern response than it does further south.

“The Canadian Coast Guard serves as Canada’s eyes and ears on the ocean in the North,“ it reads. “It also plays an important role in the spill prevention regime.

Among 25 recommendations, the panel says the federal government should ensure adequate resources for the Coast Guard.

“Throughout our engagement with stakeholders, we heard that the Canadian Coast Guard’s capabilities have been in decline in the Arctic, impacting its ability to keep up with the current modest increases in shipping and a lengthening shipping season.”

It also recommends improvements to navigation and communications systems, filling knowledge gaps on products and the environment, and an Arctic-specific plan for spill response.

“However, even the best prevention may not avoid all spills,” the panel warns.

Danger of heavy fuel oil

The report makes no mention of diluted bitumen from the Alberta oilsands but says heavy fuel oils may pose a higher risk to wildlife and ecosystems.

The International Maritime Organization has banned transport and use of heavy fuel oils in the Antarctic, and Norway has followed suit around Svalbard, the report says.

“There could be a reduction in the impacts on the environment from future oil spills, should Canada similarly pursue a reduction or ban on the use and/or carriage of heavy fuel oils in the Arctic,” the experts say.

In the Arctic and elsewhere, there is no national emergency preparedness and response plan for dealing with the hazardous and noxious substances being transported through Canadian waters.

The panel makes 17 recommendations for such a plan.

“The lack of a formal preparedness and response program for HNS incidents in Canada needs to be addressed,” the report says.

No one from the Canadian Shipping Federation was immediately able to comment.

Alex Speers Roesch, an Arctic campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, says oil spills in the Arctic are impossible to clean up.

“The best, and only, way to guarantee no oil spills in the Arctic is to ensure that oil tankers are never permitted to transit sensitive Arctic waters,” he tells Yahoo Canada News.

“As today’s spill in the Vancouver harbour has demonstrated once again, oil spills can and will continue to occur. No amount of safety measures can ever guarantee against the risk of an oil spill in Canada’s Arctic.”

Transport Canada welcomed the report in a statement released late Wednesday.