WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A major offshore Arctic oil spill could severely challenge the Coast Guard, with no available infrastructure to base rescue and clean-up operations, the Coast Guard commandant said on Monday.
“There is nothing up there to operate from at present and we’re really starting from ground zero,” said Adm. Robert Papp Jr. “Now’s the time to be not just talking about it, but acting about it.”
Several major oil companies, notably Royal Dutch Shell, have acquired leases to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska. Arctic waters are likely to be accessible to humans for longer periods as the planet heats up.
In May, the extent of Arctic ice was the third-smallest since satellites began collecting data in 1979, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Noting that the Coast Guard sent 3,000 people to work on the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Papp told reporters at a government symposium on shrinking Arctic ice: “No way we could deploy several thousand people as we did in the Deepwater Horizon spill.”
The Coast Guard has no helicopters based on Alaska’s North Slope, and no U.S. agency has a helicopter there equipped to perform rescues at sea, he said. There are no facilities that could serve as temporary hangars for equipment, or any small boat facilities.
Housing for any emergency workers amounts to a few dozen hotel rooms, he said.
Even as the Arctic warms -- and it is warming faster than lower latitudes -- temperatures are still extremely cold, which means equipment built for operations in temperate zones need to be tested for fitness in the far north.
For example, the Coast Guard flew a basic military cargo plane, the C-130, in the Arctic and found that the craft’s liquid fuel turned into a gel when temperatures dipped below a certain level unless heaters were applied to it, Papp said.
Only one U.S. icebreaker ship will be under way this year, he said. Another is being decommissioned and a third ship is being updated. Papp said China is building what will be the most powerful conventional icebreaker in the world.
He praised the signing last month of the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement, where eight Arctic nations -- Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States -- agreed to cooperate on rescues above the Arctic Circle.
The United States also needs to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty, Papp said. He said other Arctic nations are using this pact to stake claims to swaths of the extended continental shelf in the Arctic, and that U.S. ratification would enable the United States to extend its sovereignty there as well.