Arctic oil spill plans completely inadequate, say top experts

Last edited 31 August 2011 at 9:47am

Cairn took two years to release controversial documents

31 August, 2011

A British oil company has been accused of "breathtaking irresponsibility" after it admitted that its plans for cleaning upan Arctic oil spill included cutting out chunks of oiled ice and melting them in heated warehouses, relying on "limited portable lights" during the six months of the year in which the region is shrouded in darkness, and the suggestion that cod and salmon might swim out of the way of the oil. Any Arctic clean up operation would grind to a halt completely in the winter months.

Cairn Energy, who are spearheading the new Arctic oil rush, also admits that the sort of conventional spill response techniques used in the Gulf of Mexico - such as booms, skimmers and dispersants -will be significantly less effective, if not completely useless, in the harsh Arctic environment. (1)

The company began drilling off the coast of Greenland around two years ago. They are drilling at least four exploratory wells in the icy waters of the Davis Strait off Greenland this year, with some as deep as 1500m, a similar depth to BP's ill-fated Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. (2)

Against industry norms, Cairn had consistently refused to publish their Arctic oil spill prevention and response plans. This prompted a series of direct actions by Greenpeace, which occupied their Edinburgh headquarters, and scaled their Arctic oil rig to force the release of the secret documents. (3) Finally, this month the documents were published by the government of Greenland following fierce public and political pressure including petitioning of the company by over a hundred thousand members of the public.

A veteran marine biologist who is recognised as an international expert on oil spills and a world authority on the Exxon Valdez accident has warned that Cairn, "dramatically overstates the potential effectiveness of any spill response," and "fails to adequatelyaddress the enormity of logistic requirements for dealing with a spill off Greenland."Professor Richard Steiner, a former marine professor with the University of Alaska, conducted a review of Cairn's oil spill response plan documents. (4)

Key points from the documents and the experts' analysis of them include:

  • An admission from the company that any clean up operations would grind to a halt during the Arctic winter, saying "during ice conditions the response may be limited to monitoring the spill with recovery operations resuming once the thaw is complete." Yet if a blow-out occurred towards the end of the drilling season a relief well would not be completed until January, by which time the ice-bound Arctic winter would have set in. (5)
  • One scientist told Greenpeace that in the event of a spill there is no known way of remotely detecting oil trapped under the ice, leaving Cairn no option but to drill randomly through the ice in an attempt to find oil trapped beneath. Cairn claims it can cut out sections of oiled sea ice to remove and later melt in a heated warehouse. The experts contacted by Greenpeace highlighted that there is no evidence as to whether this technique is effective or has been adequately tested.
  • Cairn vastly underestimates the worst case scenario for an Arctic spill, claiming that at most, 5000 barrels per day for a maximum of 37 days would leak. BP's Macondo well spilled an estimated 55,000 barrels a day over 60 days. (6) According to the plan some of the Cairn wells in question are of a similar depth and possibly similar pressures. Steiner states that as a result Cairn's wells could release comparable amounts of oil, saying, "The assumptions on which this is judged to be the worst possible case are highly questionable." (7) Well pressure is one of the factors that would determine the extent of a blow out should one occur.
  • Cairn's plan admits that as ice moves over any spill site, moving ice will trap oil and move it away from the immediate vicinity of the blow out. Cairn would be forced to track each individual ice floe and recover oil from underneath them – a nearly impossible task.
  • The remoteness and sparse population of the Greenlandic and Canadian coastline make Cairn's shoreline clean-up plan wildly over optimistic. 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" and says, "In some circumstances oiled shorelines are best left to recover naturally." (8)

For more significant flaws in Cairn's plan – see Notes for Editors, below.

Professor Steiner concluded:

"Cairn's plan makes many questionable assumptions in its discussion of spill risk and response. It dramatically understates the potential size and impacts of a blow out from one of their four wells, and it dramatically overstates the potential effectiveness of any spill response. Oil spill response in ice-covered seas is virtually impossible, and this plan fails to adequately address the enormity of logistical requirements for dealing with a spill off Greenland."

Greenpeace campaigner Vicky Wyatt said:

"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. Cairn Energy is showing breathtaking irresponsibility by completely failing to offer any detail as to how they would really deal with a spill in ice-covered seas, if indeed they could at all. This cowboy company are playing roulette with one of the most important and fragile environments on the planet, and must be stopped."

In separate British government documents previously obtained by Greenpeace UK using Freedom of Information laws, officials are seen advising Ministers behind closed doors that in the event of a spill in the Arctic it would be, "near impossible to make good damage caused."(9)

For more information/interviews:

*Interviews and background briefings with scientific experts available*

Greenpeace UK Press Office +44 (0) 20 7865 8255


A full copy of Cairn's spill plan

A full copy of Greenpeace's analysis of Cairn's spill plan

For photography/video:

Greenpeace UK Picture desk on +44 (0) 20 7865 8118

Notes for Editors:

More significant flaws in Cairn's plan:

  • According to Professor Steiner, even in ideal conditions for a clean-up, booms and skimmers will at most recover a tiny proportion of spilled oil – less than 10%. If ice coverage is greater than 25% booms and skimmers will be rendered completely useless. (Page 78 of Cairn's paper)
  • Cairn admits that freezing Arctic temperatures will mean spilled oil becomes more viscous, rendering the chemical dispersants used, for instance, in the Gulf of Mexico, ineffective. Professor Steiner says that if chemical dispersants were to be used anyway they could have a detrimental impact on local wildlife. (Page 5 of Steiner's review)
  • Cairn claims it can "clean" 8,793 barrels of oil a day, with mechanical recovery, dispersants, and burning. Professor Steiner pointed out that of this amount, only 650 barrels a day would actually removed from the environment. (Page 8 of Steiner's review.)
  • The impact of a spill on Arctic wildlife would be devastating. The region is home to many endangered species including polar bears. Cairn admits that significant long-terms impacts of a spill could be expected on narwhals and breeding colonies of Atlantic puffins and razorbill, whilst populations of cormorants and king eiders would be significantly depleted. (Page 146 of Cairn's document) But Professor Steiner says Cairn "dramatically understates the potential impacts" on wildlife.


1. See page 78 of Cairn's document
2. A copy of the Greenpeace media briefing about Cairn Energy is available here:
3. For details of these direct actions, go to:
4. A profile of Professor Richard Steiner is available here:
5. See page 90 of Cairn's document and page 3 of Professor Steiner's paper
6. P166 of the US Presidential Commission's report on Deepwater Horizon:
7. Page 70 of Cairn's document
8. Page 70 and Page 94 of Professor Steiner's review

Follow Greenpeace UK