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Home* News and Stories → Oil spills in cold climate areas: are and remain uncontrollable

Oil spills in cold climate areas: are and remain uncontrollable

It is almost 25 years ago that the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef on the south coast of Alaska. The Exxon Valdez achieved sad fame when an alcoholic captain and an overcharged third mate steered the ship on rocks on March 24, 1989. 37,000 tons of crude oil were spilled and polluted 2,000 km of coastline. The result was and is an ecological and economical disaster for a whole region.

Scientists have now had 25 years to study the consequences of an oil spill in cold (but not high arctic) coastal waters. The results are sobering:

  • A cleanup of a major spill of crude or heavy oil is impossible. Despite using resources of about 2 billion US-$, Exxon has managed to clean up a mere 7 % of the polluted coastline. After the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, BP has used an astronomic 20 billion US-$ but “cleaned” no more than 3 % of coastline and surface waters, largely by using other toxic chemicals. Conclusion: it is impossible to clean up a spill of heavy or crude oil once it has happened.
  • Once damage is a fact, it will last a long time, if not forever. In Alaska, 32 habitats and population have been monitored after the Exxon Valdez disaster. Out of these, only 13 are considered fully “recovered” or “very likely recovered.” Thousands of tons of oil are still in the sediment, polluting their surroundings for a very long time.
  • Ecological damage cannot be repaired by man, only by nature itself. To make this possible, ecosystems have to be intact.
  • The risks of oil spills, both the likelihood of such an event and the following impact, is usually underestimated or downplayed by authorities and industries.
  • Prevention is the only strategy that really makes sense. Currently, the industry tends to a reduce spill risk to “As Low As Reasonably Practicable” (ALARP); instead of “As Low As Possible” (ALAP), regardless of cost” although “prevention is clearly cost-effective”.
  • In cold areas, the ecological impact and technical difficulties increase strongly. Any attempt of clean-up in ice waters are highly unrealistic to be successful.

These are some of the key results presented by Professor Steiner in an article in the Huffington Post. On the long term, only abstinence of oil will prevent oil spills. This was one of the demands of the 1989 disaster in Alaska, but the global need for oil has obviously increased dramatically since. Sustainability is not yet a significant factor in decision making in politics and economy.

Small oil spill next to a leaking diesel tank at a station in Antarctica.

Oil spill, Antarctica

Source: Huffington Post

last modification: 2014-07-01 · copyright: Rolf Stange