April 2015

Spill response JIP anticipates offshore Arctic development

Oil response technologies in the Arctic are the focus of a research program, led by nine major oil and gas companies. Their goal is to advance a range of oil spill response technologies and methodologies in support of exploration and development activity in the region.
Joseph Mullin / Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology—Joint Industry Program, IOGP
Field testing of fire-resistant booms in low concentrations of drift ice, offshore Norway.
Field testing of fire-resistant booms in low concentrations of drift ice, offshore Norway.

The Arctic region already supplies about 15% of the world’s oil and natural gas production. Furthermore, the U.S. Geological Survey also estimates that the Arctic holds 13% of the world’s undiscovered petroleum and 30% of undiscovered natural gas. As such, the region represents an important region for supplying the energy demands of the future.

Of these undiscovered resources, an estimated 84% lie offshore in a region that presents unique challenges. Over the last few decades, the industry has taken proactive steps to assess the knowledge and capabilities around oil spill response technology in harsh Arctic conditions, and enhance these to develop modern tools and establish best practices for exploration and production.


In 2009, members of the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPIECA) Oil Spill Working Group (OSWG), Industry Technical Advisory Committee (ITAC), and American Petroleum Institute (API) Emergency Preparedness and Response Program Group (EP&RPG) formed a joint committee. Industry research over the past two decades already includes hundreds of studies, laboratory basin experiments and field trials from the United States, Canada and Scandinavia—a noteworthy recent example being the large-scale, comprehensive study by the Norwegian research institute, SINTEF. The joint committee was formed to build on this body of research and development, and improve existing technologies and methodologies for Arctic oil spill response.

This joint committee was tasked with reviewing the industry’s prior work on prevention and response to oil spills in ice, and to identify technological advances and research needs in industry preparedness. One of the outcomes of the review was the establishment of a joint industry program (JIP), charged with undertaking targeted research projects in the priority areas identified, to further the industry’s capabilities and coordination in the field of Arctic oil spill response.

The JIP was officially launched in 2012 at the Arctic Frontiers Conference in Tromsø, Norway. The JIP represents a pooling of knowledge, resources and insights from nine international oil and gas companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ENI, Exxon Mobil, North Caspian Operating Company (NCOC), Shell, Statoil and Total. This makes the JIP the largest pan-industry program dedicated to this area of research.

The JIP is coordinated by an Executive Steering committee composed of representatives from each member company and supported by the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP), the body which represents the industry at the United Nations, European Union, and other global and regional bodies. The IOGP provides project management expertise and access to a number of industry experts and scientific institutions to perform the scientific research. Creating international research programs to further enhance industry knowledge and capabilities in the area of Arctic oil spill response, the JIP looks at all aspects of oil spill preparedness, oil spill behavior and options for oil spill response in the arctic marine environment to minimize any impact.

While the industry remains focused, first and foremost, on preventing any oil spill from ever occurring in the Arctic, it is also committed to be prepared for a spill, however unlikely. The ability to use a broad range of response options, and adapt to changes in conditions, is essential to mounting the most effective response possible in the Arctic region.

The JIP has defined six core research themes for which expert technical working groups have been set up, comprising researchers from each member company. In addition, a number of industry experts and academic institutions, such as SINTEF, NewFields and SL Ross, are being engaged to perform the scientific research. The core research themes address the differing aspects involved in oil spill response, including the methods used, and their applicability to the Arctic’s unique conditions.

The core research themes cover dispersants, environmental effects, trajectory modeling, remote sensing, mechanical recovery and in situ burning (ISB). Investigations involve a combination of experimental studies and synthesis of existing data, leading to recommendations for improved practice, development of improved operational methods for response, and field experiments to verify the research results. Projects in progress range across dispersant effectiveness testing; modeling the fate of dispersed oil in ice; assessing environmental effects; advancing modeling trajectory capabilities in ice; and mapping of oil in darkness or low visibility; in or under ice. Additional projects relate to improving the efficiency of mechanical recovery equipment in icy environments, detailing the body of knowledge that already exists on ISB and expanding the opportunity window for ISB response operations.

Infographic summarizes the JIP research program and existing knowledge of technologies, which form the basis of an Arctic oil spill response.
Fig. 1. Infographic summarizes the JIP research program and existing knowledge of technologies, which form the basis of an Arctic oil spill response.

Results, so far, demonstrate the potential viability of multiple oil spill response technologies in arctic conditions, beyond mechanical recovery. The release of the nine reports, to date, adds to existing industry knowledge of state-of-the-art technologies and continues to build a comprehensive picture of Arctic oil spill response technologies, Fig. 1.


Dispersants. The overarching aim of the Dispersant Technical Working Group is to contribute to the current knowledge of dispersant effectiveness as an oil spill response tool, and define the operational limits of the use of mineral fines and chemical dispersants in arctic waters.

The group’s report, titled “Dispersant Testing under Realistic Conditions,” reveals that dispersants can work in the Arctic, and will, under certain conditions, even be more effective in the presence of ice than in open water. This is because the presence of ice can increase the window of opportunity within which dispersants can be deployed. However, it has been found that discussion is needed regarding potential obstacles to receiving authorization for a dispersant operation in ice-prone regions.

In situ burning. The In Situ Burning (ISB) Technical Working Group aims to understand the degree to which ISB is effective as a response technique in arctic conditions, and raise awareness of the technique’s benefits and drawbacks. The controlled in situ burning of an oil slick is a well-established response technology that has been the subject of research since the 1950s. Recently, ISB was deployed successfully during the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon (Macondo) response, with 411 operations conducted in a safe manner. ISB also has proved effective for other oil spills in icy conditions, having been employed successfully to remove oil from storage tanks and ship accidents in Alaska, Canada and Scandinavia since the 1970s.

The oil and gas industry believes in the benefits of ISB and wishes to ensure that in situ burning can be available immediately, whenever it is needed. This requires the incorporation of ISB as a response tactic in contingency plans, and the availability of resources and trained response organizations. An urgent need has, therefore, been identified to better communicate the state of knowledge around this response option to external stakeholders, including decision makers in governments and their agencies. As such, one of the JIP’s ISB Technical Working Group’s primary goals is to understand the degree to which ISB can be utilized under arctic conditions, to raise awareness of the method as a primary response technique. Another goal is to prepare materials that support the industry’s efforts to educate industry, regulatory and other external stakeholders, with the aim of promoting the uptake of ISB in situations, where it could be beneficial.

Significant findings from the Technical Working Group, so far, show that ISB is one of the response techniques with the highest potential for oil spill removal in arctic conditions. Results show that the technology already exists to conduct controlled ISB of oil spilled in a wide variety of ice conditions. Additionally, most perceived risks associated with ISB can be mitigated by following approved procedures, using trained personnel and maintaining the correct separation distances between burning sites.

Scientists conducting remote sensing experiments on oil trapped in, and under, ice at Svea, Norway.
Fig. 2. Scientists conducting remote sensing experiments on oil trapped in, and under, ice at Svea, Norway.

Three reports already have been produced by the group outlining these findings. The first report, “In situ burning in ice-affected waters: State of knowledge,” is a literature review of all relevant scientific, field studies and experiments on the subject. The second report, “In situ burning in ice-affected waters: A technology summary and lessons from key experiments,” confirms the existence of sufficient information—from laboratory and field testing—to understand the basic principles of the ISB of oil in a wide variety of snow and ice conditions, and the existence of technology to conduct controlled ISB in ice conditions. The third report, “In situ burning in ice-affected waters: Status of regulations in Arctic and Sub-Arctic countries,” captures the state of regulations related to the deployment of ISB as an oil spill response countermeasure. Of the 11 countries evaluated, the U.S. (Alaska region) is the only region with documented procedures for approving the use of ISB as a response strategy. The JIP believes the industry has a role to play in helping countries with arctic jurisdiction understand the benefits of having a regulatory process in place for approval.

Remote sensing. In March, the Oil Spill Detection and Mapping in Low Visibility and Ice Research Technical Working Group completed work with C-CORE and the Polar Ocean Services/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, to advance research in this area. The ability to accurately detect and map oil-slicks is of particular priority in the arctic region, as oil can be obscured from view by low visibility and periods of almost complete darkness, and/or hidden under snow and ice cover. The overarching aim of this group is, therefore, to widen the industry’s capabilities for remote sensing in darkness, low visibility, broken ice and under ice, as well as detecting and tracking subsea plumes that may develop with the use of subsea dispersants.

There have been rapid advances in remote sensing technology, changing the way the industry approaches oil spill detection and mapping. To capitalize on these advancements, the JIP has sponsored studies to compare and contrast a range of above-ice, in-ice and below-ice sensors for the first time. The research experiments were a partnership between the Oil Spill Recovery Institute (OSRI) and Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), and tested and evaluated the performance of various remote sensing technologies with crude oil on, encapsulated in, and under ice, under conditions that included low visibility.

These unique experiments took place at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers CRREL between September 2014 and February 2015, to test and evaluate the performance of various surface and subsea remote sensing technologies. These studies determined the capability of detecting different oil thicknesses and depths within sea ice. The experiments took place in a climate-controlled test basin, 37 m long x 9 m wide and 2.4 m deep, evaluating aerial sensors, including radar, visible cameras, infrared cameras, laser fluorosensors and hyperspectral detectors, and subsea sensors, including sonars, cameras, laser fluorosensors and hyperspectral detectors.

The test tank simulated Arctic Ocean conditions, with similar salinity and sea ice at different stages, ranging from fragile ice to columnar ice that was 80 cm thick, to which oil varying from a few millimetres to 5 cm thick was injected. After these experiments had been conducted, the ice was melted to simulate the spring thaw, for observation of sensor performance under challenging conditions, where ice is thawed and becomes highly conductive. So far, the findings indicate that the industry already has a range of surface and airborne imaging systems, which can be deployed from helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, vessels and drilling platforms, that are suitable for icy conditions. The experiments will lead to recommendations for the most effective sensor suite for detecting oil in the Arctic, as well as design parameters for improved arctic sensors in the future.


The next phase of research moves into lab and basin testing of specific technologies identified as having potential for the most effective response to oil spill situations under arctic conditions. Basin calibration already has been completed for three test tanks, to be used over the next year for the further testing of dispersant effectiveness, remote sensing technologies, trajectory modeling and chemical herders.

Dispersants. Test facilities at SL Ross, SINTEF and Cedre will be used for the laboratory and further basin testing of dispersant effectiveness. Spill parameters have been defined, including oil type, dispersant type, mixing energy and ice cover, to determine the series of tests that will be performed in large- and medium-scale wave basins. These tests will include side-by-side tests for already commercially available dispersants, such as natural mineral fines, as well as products under development.

Dr. John Bradford, Boise State University, testing ground penetrating radar at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in New Hampshire, U.S.A.
Fig. 3. Dr. John Bradford, Boise State University, testing ground penetrating radar at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in New Hampshire, U.S.A.

The tests also will examine dispersant injection during well-control events, a technique that involves pre-placing of dispersants into oil during these events to keep oil dispersed at the subsea level, or to allow dispersion at the surface. Numerical models will be used by the JIP to predict the fate of a dispersed oil plume in the various water depths, which may be encountered during arctic drilling, to provide information that can be used for decision-makers during an emergency.

Finally, dispersant effectiveness tests also will investigate other potential arctic oil spill scenarios, such as spillage of oil onto continuous ice sheets and subsequent cover by snow, or the rise of oil under ice sheets and its encapsulation in growing ice. Future research will include treating oil from these scenarios after it is released during the spring melt, or treating oil from a point release source, before it enters the environment.

Trajectory modeling. The JIP aims to improve the resolution of oil spill trajectory modeling in ice, by extending capabilities to model the differing properties of ice and ice movement, with the ultimate goal of developing a new, high-resolution sea ice model—greater than 100 m—which incorporates actual remote sensing and tracking of oil on ice. Results will be integrated into established oil spill trajectory models.

Chemical herders. Finally, research is being initiated to improve knowledge of the effects and performance of chemical herders in ice-prone waters. Chemical herders are designed for application around the perimeter of surface oil. They “herd” the oil, causing it to gather in a more concentrated location, thus facilitating mechanical recovery or ISB. The research project will evaluate these herders and aim to demonstrate that they remain effective during an in situ burn, using large-scale basin testing and field verification. The research will contribute to the development of an application system to allow herders to be sprayed from boats or aircraft, enabling their use within very cold environmental conditions.


The JIPs findings, to date, demonstrate that the industry is prepared and has a wide range of viable technologies for oil-spill response in the presence of ice in open water. The industry has a role to play in helping countries in arctic jurisdictions to understand the benefits of having a regulatory process in place to approve the use of all of these response methods and technologies. As such, the results of studies will be published in peer-reviewed journals, and materials have been developed for the benefit of the wider audience interested in arctic oil-spill response, including NGOs, policymakers and members of the environmental community. For more information about the JIP, visit www.arcticresponsetechnology.org, where you can subscribe for updates. wo-box_blue.gif  

About the Authors
Joseph Mullin
Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology—Joint Industry Program, IOGP
Joseph Mullin is the program manager for the Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology—Joint Industry Program, coordinated by the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP). Prior to joining IOGP, Mr. Mullin worked 39½ years for the U.S. federal government. For more than 20 years, Mr. Mullin directed the U.S. Department of the Interior, Minerals Management Service’s (now the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement) nationwide Oil Spill Response Research (OSRR) program and was responsible for the operation and management of Ohmsett—the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy test facility in Leonardo, N.J. Over the past decade, he has specialized in Arctic oil spill research issues.
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