With big oil companies eager to expand offshore exploration in the Arctic, an environmental group on Wednesday warned that the United States is ill-prepared to deal with an oil spill there.
Freezing conditions, high seas and fragile ecosystems are among the dangers that could imperil operations to clean up a potential spill in the Arctic, where a gusher like BP's in the Gulf of Mexico could have disastrous consequences, said the report by the Pew Environment Group.
The report said drillers are unprepared for near-hurricane force winds, 20-30 foot (six to nine-meter) seas, massive blocks of ice, total darkness for parts of the year and hundreds of miles between drilling sites in northern Alaska and major ports where supplies could be flown in case of trouble.
Walrus, seal, fish and polar bear habitats could be disrupted and entire remote communities wiped out if their means of subsistence living are eliminated by a toxic spill, the report said.
"I think there is a great deal of pressure right now to move forward with offshore drilling and I am hoping that our report and raising these questions will help guide toward a more precautionary approach in the Arctic," Marilyn Heiman, director of the US Arctic program at the Pew Trusts, told AFP.
Skimmers that lift oil off the surface of the water will not work in the icy Arctic. Also unknown is how boats could navigate broken ice conditions to reach a spill site and if chemical dispersants that were widely used after the BP spill would work.
"Oil does not biodegrade nearly as quickly in cold waters," Heiman said. In the case of the Exxon Valdez spill, "It is still causing toxicity in some species after 20 years, and that includes otters."
The report urged the federal government to do major research on the Arctic marine environment before oil and gas exploration is allowed to go ahead, and said risk assessments and spill response strategies must be tailored to Arctic conditions.
"Current industry oil response plans are based on small-scale laboratory and field trials that have been extrapolated without large-scale verification," the report said.
There are four current drilling operations off the Alaskan coast in the Beaufort Sea and two in the works, but those are near the coasts and drillers use manmade ice islands and roads to reach their rigs, Heiman explained.
Logistics could prove a major obstacle if a spill were to occur in deeper waters, with the port of Barrow in northern Alaska 725 miles (1,166 kilometers) by air from the capital Anchorage and 950 miles (1,528 kilometers) from the Coast Guard base in the southern port of Kodiak.
The closest major port, Dutch Harbor, is 1,300 miles (2,092 kilometers) by sea from Barrow.
"If a catastrophic oil spill were to occur, days or weeks could pass before response personnel and assets could be mobilized and deployed," the Pew report said.
US President Barack Obama imposed a moratorium on new deepwater drilling and exploration in the wake of the BP oil spill, which began in April and was not halted until July by which time 4.9 million barrels had gushed into the sea.
The moratorium was lifted in October. Companies like Royal Dutch Shell want to begin drilling in the coming months and are submitting proposals to show they can meet tougher new government regulations.
The Obama administration's decision to temporarily halt new drilling caused an uproar in the oil industry as workers were laid off and coastal economies in the US south suffered from the job losses in an already struggling economy.
The US Geological Survey said in 2008 that within the Arctic circle there are 90 billion barrels of oil and vast quantities of natural gas waiting to be tapped, most of it offshore.
Britain's Cairn Energy, which is drilling two wells off the west coast of Greenland, said last week it had discovered gas and oil during its first exploration of the area.