The World Wildlife Fund  Canada (WWF-C), the Canadian arm of the international not-for-profit environmental activist organization, recently issued a report on Canada’s preparedness for cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic.  In short, the WWF-C is of the view that remote Arctic communities face almost certain environmental catastrophe in the event of an oil spill from large shipping vessels.

The report chronicles research done by the WWF-C on the state and availability of oil-spill response equipment, training resources, and the communications infrastructure in the Arctic.  Report researchers found major issues in all areas related to spill response in Canada’s Arctic.

Gaps in oil spill response capacity are outlined in two parallel WWF-C assessments for the Beaufort region in the western Arctic and Nunavut in the east.  The reports found that:

  • Only a small number of coastal communities have access to the most basic oil-spill response equipment from the Canadian Coast Guard.
  • The communities that do have equipment say it is irregularly maintained, too few community members are trained to use it, and that some communities don’t have a key to access the storage containers.
  • Harsh weather conditions, periods of prolonged darkness and the presence of sea ice make most standard oil-spill response equipment ineffective.
  • Remote locations mean response times for large-scale cleanup and storage equipment can be more than 10 times longer than in waters south of 60 degrees’ latitude.
  • Lack of reliable communications infrastructure makes it difficult for communities to call for assistance, and for responders to communicate with those on land during an oil-spill response.

The report states that first responders in the Arctic are typically members of the community and that they lace effective and reliable equipment to contain and clean-up an oil spill.  Heavy fuel oil (HFO) is the standard marine fuel for cargo ships, tankers and large cruise ships.  It is also one of the world’s dirtiest, most polluting ship fuels, and the most difficult to clean up.

The report also contains are review on the consequences of an oil spill in remote communities.  Firstly, an oil spill would contaminate habitat for arctic wildlife and destroy fish habitat.  Secondly, it would likely contaminant a wider area as it would get trapped under sea ice and potentially travel hundreds of kilometres.

A third report prepared by WWF-C outlines a framework for creating oil spill response plans in Nunavut’s remote communities.  Recommendations from the reports include:

  • Phase out the use by ships of HFO, the most toxic and difficult to clean up of any marine fuel in the Arctic.
  • Align response time standards in the North with those south of 60 degrees latitude.
  • Develop community-based response plans.
  • Increase funding for training of community responders.
  • Consult with Inuit organizations on decisions that affect Arctic communities, and use both scientific and traditional knowledge to identify preferred shipping routes and areas to be avoided.

Though the chances of a large-scale oil spill in the Arctic are currently small, the consequences would be significant.  As sea ice melts and ship traffic increases, there is an opportunity now, while traffic is still relatively low, to put measures in place to respond to spills, or prevent them from happening in the first place. Because sparsely populated Arctic communities assume the risk of spills, they need both adequate equipment and response plans specifically tailored to the extreme Arctic environment.