Verdict: Cairn's oil spill plan is outlandish, simplistic and "wholly inadequate"

Posted by bex — 31 August 2011 at 6:35am - Comments
Cairn's Leiv Eriksson rig off the coast of Greenland
All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace / Steve Morgan
Cairn's Leiv Eriksson rig off the coast of Greenland

Earlier this month, after more than 100,000 of you asked Cairn Energy to open up its Arctic oil spill response plan to public scrutiny, the government of Greenland stepped in and published it.

The verdict is now in. Veteran marine biologist and international oil spill expert Professor Richard Steiner has completed a review of the plan and, well, it's no wonder Cairn didn't want you to see it.

I'm summarising the worst of the admissions, assumptions and omissions below but you can also download Greenpeace's review of the plan and Professer Steiner's in-depth review.

Cairn makes some startling admissions in its plan. For example, the company admits that:

  • Any Arctic clean up operation would grind to a halt completely in the winter months.
  • The geography of Greenland's coastline makes it impossible to clean up a spill ("the coastal environment in Greenland does not facilitate containment, recovery or protection due to the uneven rocky substrate that prevails in the region").
  • Mechanically recovering the oil using booms and skimmers would not be effective in the Arctic; sea ice coverage as low as 10 per cent will cause failure of mechanical oil spill recovery.
  • The extremely low temperatures would make the oil more viscous, which could "cause problems for response clean up strategies when the oil is to be pumped or collected".
  • The oil could not be burned in situ; transporting the necessary offshore equipment to deal with a blow out to the spill site would take between 51-84 hours, which means the exposed oil "is no longer amenable to ignition".
  • "Even in the most ideal conditions, recovery rates will never be 100 per cent and are actually more likely to be around 10 to 20 per cent." (In reality, in most spill scenarios in the Arctic, offshore recovery will almost certainly not be anywhere that high.)
  • "Clean up techniques can be damaging and in some circumstances oiled shorelines are best left to recover naturally".
  • Cairn will be relying on "limited portable lights" during the six months of the year in which the region is shrouded in darkness.
  • The impact of a spill on Arctic wildlife would be devastating, including significant long-term impacts on narwhals and breeding colonies of Atlantic puffins and razorbills. Marine mammals, such as seals and walruses, may be affected through the food chain.

In simple terms, Cairn is admitting - as the UK government already has - that a spill in the Arctic would be devastating, and near impossible to clean up.

But it gets worse. In order to sound credible in the face of these admissions, Cairn resorts to simplistic - and often outlandish - assumptions about both the extent of any spill and the effectiveness of its own response. For example:

  • Cairn claims that, in a worst case scenario, a maximum of 5,000 barrels per day would leak for 37 days at most. BP's Macondo well (a similar pressure to Cairn's wells) spilled 55,000 barrels a day over 60 days.
  • Cairn claims it can clean up 8,793 barrels of oil a day. Professor Steiner suggests that a more realistic figure would be 650 barrels a day.
  • The clean up plans include cutting out chunks of oiled ice and melting them in heated warehouses. Yes, you read that right; Cairn claims it can cut out sections of oiled sea ice to remove - but offers no evidence that oiled ice can be located and cut out, or whether the technique will be effective. Furthermore, moving ice would trap spilt oil and move it away from the immediate vicinity of the blow out. Tracking each individual ice floe and recovering oil from underneath is a near-­impossible task.
  • Cairn's plan assumes that marine mammals and fish will swim out of the way of any spill (demonstrably false).
  • Cairn uses 5 degrees Centigrade as the average sea surface temperature during an oil spill, yet according to the spill plan itself, this is the maximum sea surface temperature. The modelling should be based on a worst case scenario, ie -6 degrees Centigrade.
  • Cairn says it will take 34 days to drill a relief well off Greenland. This optimistic figure is lifted straight from another large operator's relief well plan for the Arctic, rather than being based on Cairn's specific projects.

Finally, Cairn completely omits any details on matters that would be included in any credible oil spill response plan, for example:

  • There is no wildlife response plan detailing how and where affected wildlife would be handled, cleaned and rehabilitated.
  • The plan offers no viable alternatives to conventional oil spill techniques such as booms, dispersants and in situ burning, which simply would not work when ice is present.
  • There is little detail on how Cairn would control a blow-out in deep water.
  • There is almost no explanation of how Cairn will respond to the darkness and freezing temperatures while tackling a spill as the Arctic winter sets in.
  • A blow-out at a Cairn well would cause oil to reach Canada, yet Cairn offers no information as to whether the Canadian government has given formal approval to this spill plan, and whether this plan is also supposed to cover the Canadian coastline or whether a separate plan exists.
  • Cairn has failed to assess the different areas off Greenland that could be impacted by a spill and to prioritise areas according to the environmental sensitivities of each region.

In short, the plan is wholly inadequate. Greenland should cancel Cairn's drilling programme this year and refuse future licences because this plan - and all previous experience of oil spill response technology in the Arctic - shows that we simply cannot deal with the consequences of an accident there.

Ask Greenland's Prime Minister to cancel Cairn's drilling programme and refuse future licences.

As Professor Richard Stein says: "Given the extreme ecological sensitivity of the coastal environment of west Greenland, the high risk of exploratory drilling in deep water reservoirs, and the difficulties in drilling in Arctic waters, I feel Greenland deserves a much more deliberative, comprehensive and carefully developed spill prevention and response plan." 

An alarming read, but as I suspected it throws no light on how Cairn came to the conclusion that the risk could be managed at all...

Can't say I'm surprised

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