LOOK: Map Reveals How Poorly Equipped Shell Would Be To Handle An Oil Spill In The Arctic

After a year of warnings, mishaps, and legal violations, the press is paying closer attention to Shell’s efforts to drill offshore for oil in Arctic waters.

But few have depicted what it really means to drill in such a remote region with almost no infrastructure to deal with an oil spill.

Now that people are coming to grips with the kind of emergencies that could take place in the remote region, it’s helpful to revisit an important resource put together last year by my colleagues on the oceans team at the Center for American Progress. They documented roads, airports, disaster response staging areas, coast guard stations, and everything else needed to respond to an oil spill in the Arctic. They then compared that infrastructure to the Gulf Coast, where response crews dealt with a massive well blowout in 2010 that spewed 5 million barrels of oil into ocean — a crisis that lasted three months, even with an all-out emergency response.

So what would happen if there’s a major blowout in Arctic waters? Here’s a stunning visual representation of just how little is available for response. (Click to enlarge). An explanation follows below.

In 2011, the Admiral of the U.S. Coast Guard, Robert Papp, summed up the situation pictured above in testimony to Congress: “If this [an oil spill] were to happen off the North Slope of Alaska, we’d have nothing. We’re starting from ground zero today…We have zero to operate with at present.”


When we consider all of Shell’s mishaps this year, most of them occurred in very benign settings where help was close by. When Shell’s underwater oil spill containment unit failed during testing and “crushed like a beer can,” it was in the Puget Sound — a completely different setting from the harsh conditions of the Arctic.

And when Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig ran aground near a remote Alaskan island during a nasty storm, the company was lucky enough to have a permanent Coast Guard station 50 miles away. As a result, the situation was under constant monitoring and the Coast Guard was able to respond quickly to the incident. By comparison, the closest permanent Coast Guard station to Shell’s proposed offshore drilling site is 1,000 miles away by plane, and more than 2,000 miles by sea.

Here are some more stark comparisons between the Gulf Coast and the Arctic in that recent CAP report, called “Putting a Freeze on Arctic Drilling”:

  • Within a 500-mile radius of the Deepwater Horizon blowout site, responders benefited from access to 95 airports with runways 8,000 feet or longer (and 442 with runways 5,000 feet or longer), and 3,217 total ports. That area also includes multiple large cities replete with hotels, restaurants, gas stations, hospitals, and other facilities and equipment to support and sustain the largest environmental disaster response effort in U.S. history.
  • The Coast Guard boasts a strong network of resources and personnel along the Gulf coast, including 30 facilities within a 500-mile radius of the spill site. In addition to providing crucial logistical support, the Coast Guard contributed 7,000 active and reserve personnel, 60 vessels, and 22 aircraft to the response effort.
  • There are no permanent Coast Guard facilities within a 500-mile radius of Shell’s proposed drill sites in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The nearest Coast Guard air station to the North Slope is located in Kodiak — more than 1,000 miles to the south, and the sea route from Kodiak is more than twice that distance.
  • The closest major public port, Dutch Harbor, is 1,167 nautical miles away from Barrow in Unalaska. Alaska has no deep-water offshore port or harbor along its western coastline or North Slope.
  • In comparison, Louisiana alone has 26 public ports, including the Port of South Louisiana, the largest port by tonnage in the United States, as well as numerous private harbors and marinas.56, 57 Thirty-five of the 150 principal ports by tonnage in the United States are located within a 500-mile radius of the Deepwater Horizon spill site.
  • Most airports in Northern Alaska have only small gravel airstrips and therefore are ill suited for many types of commercial and emergency response aircrafts. In order to land a C-130, the military’s workhorse four-engine, turboprop transport aircraft, in favorable weather conditions, pilots require a runway of at least 5,000 feet. Within a 500-mile radius of proposed drill sites, there are only 21 runways that meet this criterion (and only four with runways of 8,000 feet or longer — the ideal length to land a C-130 in bad weather). Of those, only 10 have year-round access to the Dalton Highway.

For a deeper look at the hazards of Arctic offshore drilling, check out this short documentary.