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New York Times Dot Earth Blog

A Little Oil Goes a Long Way

With all the talk about an an oil rush in the Arctic, it’s useful to ponder the old-fashioned accident that just occurred on the mighty Mississippi River in New Orleans, where one leaking barge has spread a slick down nearly 100 miles of the river toward the Gulf of Mexico, closing that vital waterway to all ship traffic while cleanup crews figure out next steps.

oil spill
(Lee Celano for The New York Times)

The Arctic is a very different place, both because the water is so much colder that oil tends to congeal more, and because sea ice (at least in winter these days) can stall the spread of oil but also make it harder to clean up. The United States Coast Guard is beginning to prepare for the time when tanker and other ship traffic up there expands. But what’s happening in Russia? Even as more oil is on the move in the Caspian Sea and along parts of the Northeast Passage (already busier than the passage over Canada), there’s still no indication that Russia has ramped up its preparedness for inevitable spills.

Below you can read a thumbnail sketch of where things stand these days, taken from the Big Melt series in 2005 on the transforming Arctic, which I wrote with reporters scattered around the Arctic rim and Craig Duff, who also shot the prize-winning companion documentary, Arctic Rush. [Read Revkin's Post]




Nancy's comment #8

New York Times science reporter Andrew Revkin is spot on about the Arctic Rush, targeting the need for response plans for oil spills. Given the technical complexity of Arctic oil drilling and transportation, we forget at our peril the message of Charles Perrault's classic book "Normal Accidents."

Andy, you're right to target the need for response plans for oil spills in the Arctic. Unlike Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge, no one nation can protect this region. It doesn't take a crystal ball to see that the Arctic is on it's way to becoming the world's new oil patch and that major accidents there are on the way. Given the technical complexity of Arctic oil drilling and transportation, we would forget at our peril the message of Charles Perrault's classic book "Normal Accidents" — the more complex the system, the more inherent the system is to goofs, errors and unintended consequences.

Next up, who will set enforceable standards for good spill response plans? And who'll protect the budget for implementing and maintaining these plans? Maintenance is always the first budget item to be cut when times are lean. Talk about a potential tragedy of our global commons!