Scientists funded by Shell and six other oil companies say that cleaning up oil spills in Arctic ice is in many respects easier than cleaning it from open water.
The reason, they said Tuesday, is that oil spilled in open water tends to spread out quickly over large areas and contaminate the shoreline. In contrast, recent testing in the Barents Sea above northern Europe has shown that ice can act as a natural blockade that traps the oil and gives responders more time to clean it up.
The researchers' preliminary findings conflict with the conventional wisdom about how spills in Arctic ice would be difficult, if not impossible, to clean up. Environmentalists cite botched spill cleanup experiments that occurred a decade ago in the Beaufort Sea. At the time, the state concluded that Prudhoe Bay oil field operator BP could not adequately clean spills in slushy water.
Shell says spill-response techniques have improved greatly since then and is trying to enlist Alaskans' support for offshore exploration in federal waters. The company spent more than $2 billion last year to acquire leases and is seeking state and federal permits to explore for oil next summer in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, which geologists say may hold vast amounts of oil and natural gas.
But several conservation groups and Arctic village governments have sued to block Shell's drilling, saying it could result in pollution or interfere with subsistence whale hunts.
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