Guest blog: Interdisciplinary approach to research for oil spill prevention, planning and response regulation in the Arctic

22 Aug 2018

A guest blog by Andrey Trifonov and Prof Tina Hunter, from the Consortium of Researchers and Experts in North and Arctic Marine Ecosystems Oil Contamination (CRENAME)

The extraction of oil from the Arctic is not new. Indeed the Prirazlomnaya and Goliat fields, located in the Barents Sea, are producing oil as you read this blog. However, what is new to us as researchers and regulators is how well are we equipped to manage and respond to an oil spill if it were to ever occur in the Arctic.

Oil spill prevention and response

The continuing development of the Arctic’s enormous hydrocarbon deposits is predicated on existing regulatory frameworks that, to date, have been largely adapted from more temperate climes than to operate in the Arctic. One such framework is that for oil spill prevention and response.

At present there exists a number of soft law and hard law instruments that address the issues relating to this oil spill prevention and response, particularly those arising from the Arctic Council and national laws. For example, Norway and Russia have strong requirements in their national laws necessitating preparedness and response plans for Arctic oil spills. Yet each of these instruments are predicated on the notion that an oil spill will occur on the sea surface, with planning, modelling and response similarly centered on ocean surface spills. But what if the spill is not confined to the ocean surface? What if the spill either arises from the sea bed, or the oil spilt on the ocean surface makes its way into the water column or onto the sea bed?

The Deepwater Horizon incident demonstrated that the source of oil spills may originate from the seabed, with much of the oil spill remaining on the sea bed or entering into the water column. Such a spill, although rare, demonstrates that in a major incident, much of the contamination and impact is below the water surface. Two Arctic-centric features support the notion that the consideration of sea-bed oil spills is critical: the increased use of seabed installations rather than platforms to develop oil resources, and the behaviour of oil in extremely cold water leading to oil sinking.

Arctic fauna and flora must also be considered
Changing regulations and new research

It is these unique features that distinguish Arctic oil spills from those in more temperate, marine environs. Yet the regulation of oil spill preparedness and response in the Arctic remains focused on ocean surface. Certainly there has been some adaption of oil spill response to Arctic conditions, but this still pertains to the ocean surface, focusing on oiling of ice. There has been some scientific work on the behaviour of oil in the ocean, where it can form a substance known as marine snow. Such marine snow can be in temperate regions or colder regions.

Although there has been some scientific research into the behaviour of oil in the water column and the sea bed, and the interaction of seabed oil and flora, what has been lacking until now has been two things: research focused on the behaviour of oil in the water column and seabed specifically in Arctic conditions, and whether new methods of response to Arctic oil spills are required in light of new research.


The process of determining the content of the oil in seabed sediments, not only in the Arctic but also in other climatic zones, is a complex, multicomponent analytical task. One of the possible causes of oil pollution of seabed sediments is during the decommissioning of offshore installations. Given the fact that in the coming years the volumes of decommissioning will increase, this source of seabed oil contamination requires special attention.

Environmental monitoring of these operations is necessary to learn more about their environmental impacts. Existing traditional methods of assessment are costly and laborious and time consuming. Marine structures complicate the use of reconnaissance surveys in the Arctic with lots of manipulations required to assess large areas.

New technologies

It is necessary to comprehensively analyse and test new and existing technologies; ones that are capable of providing prompt solutions to the problems associated with oil contamination linked to petroleum operations and decommissioning. This will help to determine the degree of oil contamination of seabed sediments, and develop techniques for the cleaning of affected sediments in emergency situations.

To meet these scientific, environmental and regulatory challenges, a team of researchers from the UK and Russia has established the Consortium of Researchers and Experts in North and Arctic Marine Ecosystems Oil Contamination (CRENAME). This innovative Consortium brings together researchers with unique skills and capacities: the University of Aberdeen for its interdisciplinary research in the area including law, geology and benthic ecosystems, brought together under the SCiBAR installations project; Tomsk State University Biological Institute for its expertise in engineering response and seabed sediment cleaning solutions, including Aeroschup; Murmansk Marine Biological Institute, for its oil spill modelling, sampling and knowledge relating to Arctic oil and gas; and Northern Arctic Federal University (NARFU) which provides knowledge in law and environmental science, Biomonitoring Laboratory facilities, and access to field work with the Arctic Floating University. The first research project of the Consortium is "the behaviour of oil in Arctic Conditions and its impact on the regulation of oil spill prevention and response”. The project has three goals:

  1. To bring together leading scientists and institutions with expertise of Arctic environs to undertake a scientific study of seabed oil pollution in Arctic environs;
  2. To write, publish and make available on the consortium website the results of the research; and
  3. To establish a future plan for field-based research, to be undertaken as funding becomes available. The NARFU research vessel will be utilised for such fieldwork.

The research of the Consortium represents a true multidisciplinary approach, bringing together academics from many fields, including biologists, oceanographers, environmental scientists, marine sedimentologists, engineers and oil and gas law experts to address this problem in a holistic and innovative manner.

About the authors

Andrey Trifonov
Engineer of the Scientific and Production Laboratory of Engineering Surveys and Technologies of Nature Management of Tomsk State University. The laboratory has been engaged in research and engineering in the field of assessment and cleaning technologies for bottom sediments contaminated by oil and petroleum products for more than 15 years.

Professor Tina Hunter
Professor of Petroleum Law at the University of Aberdeen, and Director of the Aberdeen University Centre for Energy Law. Professor Hunter is also a marine sedimentologist, and has been working in Norwegian and Arctic Petroelum reseearch for 15 years.