Wageningen UR studies environmental effects of oil activities in the Arctic region

Gepubliceerd op
1 mei 2014

Oil drilling in the Arctic is not new. The first oil from the far north of Russia, coming from the Pechora Sea, came to Rotterdam in 2008. In May 2014 a new shipment with oil arrived from Russia, this time from a different location from the Pechora Sea. But what are the potential impacts of oil extraction in Arctic region on marine life and the environment if oil gets into the ice? Can effective and environmentally friendly technology be developed to clean up oil in ice? These are the questions that Wageningen University and Research centre investigates.

Due to climate change the sea ice in the Arctic decreases in both thickness and coverage. At the same time there are more than seven billion people on earth, causing the demand for scarce resources to increase. As a result, there has been much interest in new activities in the Arctic region, such as fishing, tourism, shipping, mining, and oil and gas extraction. Besides opportunities, there are also risks stemming particularly from the potential effects on humans and the environment. The challenge is therefore to balance the economic, environmental and social opportunities and risks.

Oil extraction in cold conditions is complex

Compared to the North Sea oil exploitation in the Arctic region is much more difficult. This has partly to do with the poor accessibility of the immense area and limited infrastructure, such as ports and airports. In addition, conditions are often very challenging due to fog, snow, storms and prolonged darkness in winter. Moreover, the materials and techniques used in the extraction process must withstand extreme cold and ice. As a result, the risk of an oil spill in the large area around the Arctic is relatively high, the clean-up options are relatively limited and the possible consequences are long lasting for the unique flora and fauna such as polar bears, walruses and belugas.

Oil is difficult to clean in cold conditions

It is not yet known how an oil spill in the Arctic region can be cleaned up. In cold conditions, oil behaves differently than in the North Sea. The viscosity of oil is higher for example. Oil spill response techniques may be less effective or not effective at all. Dispersing agent, a kind of liquid soap that is used to mix oil with water, might work less effectively with low temperatures, viscous oil and the presence of ice. And what happens to the mixture of oil, dispersant and plankton? Will it drop to the sea floor? During the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this spill response technique has been widely used. The consequence is a thick toxic layer on the seabed without any marine life. The visibility of oil in ice covered areas may be low. As a result the oil is hard to detect and to clean-up. Oil can also be transported to other locations together with the ice.

Wageningen UR conducts research in the Arctic

In the laboratories of Wageningen UR research is performed on the ecological risks of oil extraction and the effectiveness of traditional and new spill response techniques. With new insights, we can advise governments and industries on the most appropriate techniques and prevention measures to reduce risks as much as possible. We work together with national and international partners, for example from Norway. We also go to Spitsbergen every summer to do research in the area itself. For example, by developing methods to use shellfish for monitoring the quality of the marine environmental around oil platforms. The knowledge of Wageningen UR is applied for instance in the Lofoten, a protected island group in the Barents Sea in the north of Norway. Together with our international public and private partners management tools have been developed to predict the consequences of oil activities on plankton and fish larvae.

Knowledge as a basis for decisions

Wageningen UR develops and delivers knowledge on the effects of oil in the Arctic region, the associated environmental risks and the feasibility of spill response techniques. This knowledge is essential as it forms the basis for international discussions between governments, industries, and environmental organizations to decide where to drill or not to drill, and under what conditions. In this way, Wageningen UR contributes to achieving a balance between economic, environmental and social opportunities and risks in the Arctic region.