Yet another reason not to drill offshore in the Arctic


Just a quick follow-up on a post I wrote earlier this month about offshore drilling in the Arctic, which so far has been one disaster after another ever since Shell launched its project off Alaska this past summer. Recently, the feds who’ve signed off on this unholy venture have told the public that in a worse-case scenario, authorities or contractors could deploy dispersants like Corexit, the chemical used widely in the Gulf in 2010, to avoid the worst consequences of a spill.

In Louisiana, we know better than that. We’ve already seen how down here how the dispersant actually made things worse, making clean-up workers and other Gulf residents sick and harming our once-thriving fisheries. But now we learn even more from a study funded by another arm of the federal government — that these toxic chemicals are likely to stick around for a mich longer time if ever deployed in frigid waters like Arctic, or in deeper sections of the ocean:

EPA oil spill expert Albert D. Venosa, working with academic researchers, wanted to better understand the degradation of Corexit 9500, the main dispersant used during the spill. They ran tests on artificial seawater at 5 ºC, about the temperature at the wellhead, and at 25 ºC, roughly the temperature of the surface waters during the hot summer of the spill.

One key round of experiments involved adding an oil and dispersant mix to flasks of water that the scientists had inoculated with bacterial communities. For the cold water flasks, the team used bacteria isolated from the deep Gulf, and for the warm water, they used microbes from shallow water.

Using liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry, the team tracked levels of dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (DOSS), Corexit 9500’s main surfactant. In the warm water, when mixed with oil, DOSS broke down quickly, with most of the compound gone in eight days.

In the cold water tests, however, the team didn’t observe significant dispersant breakdown for almost a month, and some DOSS persisted at the end of the 42-day experiment. The reason, the authors say, is likely that at low temperatures the microbes slowly produce the enzymes needed to chew up DOSS.

Hopefully, we won’t have to find out how Corexit performs in the Arctic. Shell’s initial effort to initiate drilling off the coast of Alaska last summer was met with one minor catastrophe after another, culminating in the grounding of its rig, the Kulluk, in rough seas and brutal winds. Now Shell’s conceding it may not even be able to re-start its efforts this summer:

Meanwhile, the effects of this on Shell’s 2013 summer exploration program are still unclear.

“We have not yet made any decisions on the 2013 drilling in Alaska. Mapping the next steps for the Kullulk and the Noble Discoverer is a multi-faceted operation and today’s update is a result of those new plans being solidified,” Smith said.

The extent of damage on the Kulluk was not given in the statement, but a state official familiar with the grounding event said that the entry to saltwater inside the vessel is significant.

“Saltwater damage to electrical systems could be a serious issue in a sophisticated vessel like the Kulluk,” said Larry Dietrick, chief of Alaska’s oil spill response division.

Look, I think it’s been pretty clear from Day One that the government never should have green-lighted off-shore drilling in the Arctic. And with each passing day, there’s a stronger case for pulling the plug on this experiment before any serious damage is done. What does it tell you that the feds are just now gaining valuable insights into how dispersant works — or doesn”t work — after the drilling has already been approved. It’s time to end this shoot-first, ask-questions-later approach.

Check out my Feb. 5 blog post about Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the departing head of NOAA, and her misinformation about Corexit:

To read more about the EPA experiment into the use of Corexit in colder waters, please read:

Check out my post from Dec. 2 about the environmental hazards of Corexit at:

To read the May 11, 2010, warning about Corexit from me and from other scientists and environmental attorneys, please read:

To watch a video from civil engineer Marco Kaltofen showing the toxicity of Corexit, go to:

To read more about the recent research on Corexit toxicity from scientists in Georgia and Mexico, please read:

Read more about Shell’s Arctic drilling woes:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • Hi Stuart, I am a professor and a volunteer researcher for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. I am currently working on a second masters in environmental policy and have been writing a research proposal on the risks of using Corexit in subarctic waters. Like you, I am surprised the DOI gave permission to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. It was evident in the Gulf, and almost every other situation in which Corexit has been deployed, that Corexit’s success depends on optimal conditions (depth, smooth winds of less than 15 knots, temperature, etc. It should have been a revelation when BP applied Corexit at the wellhead of the Deepwater Horizon that the temperature(-2-5 degrees Celsius) caused the 100+ mile long plume that refused to dissipate. If Corexit works as a surfactant like dishwashing liquid, everyone who has ever washed dishes knows dishwashing liquid requires hot water to remove oily residue. The EPA did not even have access to Nalco’s Corexit Safety Sheet until symptoms began appearing in humans at the Gulf. Also, many of these health effects would not have appeared if volunteers had know how to apply Corexit (and its effects if exposed). Handling requirements include: neoprene gloves, HazMat suits and respirators. If exposed to the skin or inhaled medical attention is required. You would think that after using this stuff since 1967 they would have more of an understanding of its behaviors. And, the BOEM contends that mixing oil with Corexit magnifies the effects of oil 52 times; not a good potential scenario for arctic seas.

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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