An oil spill response plan is, all can agree, a critical document, particularly when drilling is breaking new ground in the Arctic. But Cairn Energy's plan, released despite their best efforts to keep it secret, has now been analysed and the verdict, say campaigners, is damning.
Professor Richard Steiner, formerly at the University of Alaska and an authority on oil spills, said Cairn "dramatically understates the potential size and impacts of a blow out ... and dramatically overstates the potential effectiveness of any spill response."
The analysis comes from Greenpeace and Steiner, who resigned from his university over his anti-oil views, so it is not likely to be impartial. But you can see Cairn's spill response plan for yourself, in which a series of issues stand out. And don't forget two things: the shameful inadequacy of the response plan to BP's Deepwater Horizon spill and the full-steam ahead for Arctic oil and gas exploration represented by yesterday's multi-billion dollar deal between ExxonMobil and Rosneft.
So what have Greenpeace and Steiner found in the plan?
• Useless booms and skimmers: Cairn admits on page 78 of its plans that these conventional approaches to capturing spilled oil will be of "little or no use" and "very inefficient" in Arctic conditions.
• Arctic winter shut down of clean-up operations: The response to a spill during the Arctic winter "may be limited to monitoring the spill with recovery operations resuming once the thaw is complete", says Cairn on page 90. The problem there is that if a relief well is needed to stem a blow out, there would be a limited time to get it in before winter ice closed down operations. If unsuccessful, a blown out well would pump oil into the ocean unhindered for months.
• Shorelines that can't be cleaned. Cairn admits "the coastal environment in Greenland does not facilitate containment, recovery or protection due to the uneven rocky substrate that prevails in the region" (page 89) and says "in some circumstances oiled shorelines are best left to recover naturally" (page 90).
• Cleaning up ice, cube by cube: Cairn says that if ice and oil were mixed, it would cut out chunks of contaminated ice and melt them in a heated warehouse to recover the oil (page 70). To me, that doesn't sound like an operation that could work at scale and experts told Greenpeace there is no evidence that this technique is effective.
• Working in the dark. Cairn admits the near perpetual darkness of an Arctic winter would "cause serious operational complications" (page 70) during a spill clean up. It says "limited portable lights" are available for shoreline operations.
• Harm to wildlife: Cairn admits that significant long-terms impacts of a spill could be expected on narwhals, breeding colonies of Atlantic puffins and razorbill and other species (page 146). Steiner claims Cairn "dramatically understates the potential impacts".
• Dispersants ineffective: Cairn states that "low oil temperature increases viscosity" (page 70). Steiner says this renders the chemical dispersants used to break up oil ineffective, aside from their potential harm to wildlife.
Greenpeace are not happy. Campaigner Vicky Wyatt says: "It's no wonder Cairn Energy didn't want the public to see their secret spill plan. The company offers only giant assumptions and pie-in-the-sky solutions. This cowboy company are playing roulette with one of the most important and fragile environments on the planet, and must be stopped."
Cairn disagree of course. A spokesperson told me the company now welcomes the release of its spill response plan by the government of Greenland. She added: "This plan has been reviewed and approved by third parties including Oil Spill Response Limited, the Danish National Environmental Research Institute and the Greenland government. All are satisfied that the plan is robust and appropriately designed to deal with an incident in this area."
Ove Karl Berthelsen, Greenland's minister for industry and mineral resources, said: "All exploration is being carried out in accordance with the utmost focus on meeting the stringent requirements we have put in place focusing on safety and environmental protection. In addition, our supervision of these requirements is among the most stringent anywhere in the world".
The problem for me is that cleaning up oil spills are like putting toothpaste back in the tube: there's just way to do it without making a big mess. As I have written before, the lure of the Arctic's sunken treasure is irresistible at present, despite the unique nature of the region and the extraordinary difficulty of operating there.
These spill response plans are in essence triumphs of hope over expectation, so I'll leave you with one more nugget from Cairn's plan: "Adult salmon and cod have been observed to avoid oil" (page 145). So, if there's a spill, the fish will just swim around it. Feel safe now?