Arctic Shipping Routes and Oil Spill Response

(by Karl Magnus Eger)


Oil spill response in Arctic waters is particularly challenging due to lack of infrastructure and because the natural conditions severely constrain an effective response. Moreover, there are limited port reception facilities to dispose oily sludge along the main shipping routes in Arctic.

The Northeast Passage

The Russian system of oil spill contingency response consists of two subsystems: state and private. The federal response system was established in the 1980s and the activity was then organized into operative zones and responsibility areas shared between Murmansk and Sakhalin. These areas include the seaways from the Russian part of the Barents Sea, through the NSR and parts of NPC to the La Pérouse Strait. In addition, Russia has oil spill contingency agreements with Norway for the Barents Sea and with the United States for the Bering Sea. Furthermore, the Russian federal response system and the available equipment used for oil spill elimination have not changed much since the 1980s, despite the increased marine traffic and oil and gas activities. Private systems include oil spill response contingency performed by oil companies and operators of oil terminals on the NEP (i.e. Varandey, Murmansk, Kandalaksha and Arkhangelsk). Nevertheless, the response systems performed by a majority of oil companies and operators in the Arctic are not sufficiently developed.

The Northwest Passage

An operative oil spill contingency response along the NWP is currently absent. This reflects the lack of adequate infrastructure. Moreover it also makes the area extremely vulnerable if any oil spill accident should occur. The Canadian legislation shows how strong the concerns are. The Arctic Water Pollution Prevention Act (AWPPA), 1970 and other regulations under this act, in particular Canada Shipping Act, 1985 have introduced regimes for oil spill response. In addition, a zone/date system is used in order to regulate vessels entering various parts of the NWP. Furthermore, Canada and the United States have agreed to establish a joint marine contingency plan for the Beaufort Sea. The plan sets out regional contacts and procedures in case of oil spills. This agreement has periodically been revised, most recently in 2003. However, if any accidental oil spill should occur at this stage, there is no operative contingency to perform quick and timely response.  

The Passages in Comparison

The Russian federal response system covers a relatively large area, including the NSR, parts of the NPC and parts the NMC. Nonetheless, the lack of preparedness, adequate equipment and facilities for oil spill elimination makes the areas highly vulnerable if any accidental oil spill should occur. Canada has a set of strict regulations and requirements for ships operating along the NWP in order to prevent oil spills. Nevertheless, like the Russian oil spill contingency on the NEP, the Canadians also lack the capability to perform an effective oil spill response along the NWP. At this time there is not an adequate preparedness for oil spills, neither on the NEP nor the NWP. The lack of infrastructure, response and necessary combating equipment makes the ecosystems vulnerable if any accident should occur.


    Karl Magnus Eger, 2010, Arctic Shipping Routes - Oil Spill Response , CHNL.©