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tv   Tech Know  Al Jazeera  January 11, 2016 5:30pm-6:01pm EST

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helping him keep one step ahead of his rivelings. david bowie was 69. he's released on his final album black star on friday. >> the top of the world - the arctic circle. an environment that is at the same time hostile and fragile. warming temperatures are warming ice at historic rates... adding to its distress, man's unquenchable desire for fossil fuel. the quest to retrieve arctic oil is underway, but how prepared is the world to handle a catastrophic spill. are oil and ice a recipe
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for disaster? this is "techknow". a show about innovations that can change lives. >> the science of fighting a wildfire. >> we're going to explore the intersection of hardware and humanity, but we're doing it in a unique way. this is a show about science... >> oh! >> oh my god! >> by scientists. tonight, techknow investigates oil in the arctic. hey guys welcome to techknow we're here with cara santa maria and marita davison, because we're talking about drilling for oil in the arctic. now i got to spend twelve days aboard an arctic ice breaker - the us coast guard cutter healy. let me just say, it was complicated. >> and phil, both weather and climate change are huge parts of the story because the sea ice in the arctic is receding. >> and i actually got to see that sea ice receding in action, and the scientists up there that
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were monitoring this are overwhelmed by the speed that this is actually happening. >> well it seems that the more the ice recedes, the easier it would be to drill right? >> yeah but what happens is actually different because even though the sea ice is gone, the extreme weather conditions remain and that's causing big problems for big oil. >> the arctic - remote, breath-taking - and one of the world's harshest frontiers. for years it's been a front line in a battle over the future of energy and climate change. temperatures here are rising twice as fast as the rest of the world. but the arctic may hold 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil. in july, 2015, shell began its controversial journey to the arctic. its mission - to drill an exploratory well in the chukchi sea, hoping to find that
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untapped potential. the stakes are high - for shell - and for the environment. the main concern for many - what would happen in the event of an arctic spill? according to the coast guard, academia and the oil industry itself, there are several currently accepted methods for dealing with oil spills in open water. they include skimming, in-situ burning and the use of chemical dispersants. none are perfect under the best of conditions and as techknow found, the efficacy of these techniques is being questioned for use in the frigid arctic waters. while shell made its way up north, that same month, techknow traveled to the arctic circle aboard the us coast guard ice breaker healy. it's one of only two coast guard ships built to handle polar ice and would likely play a major
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role in responding to a disaster here. jason hamilton is healy's commanding officer. >> an oil spill, here in the arctic, would be pretty devastating to a lot of the environment - what would the healy do? >> if there were a spill, healy's position would be to provide access. we could be the operational commander... basically a mother ship for people to do the operation off of. >> but the healy and her crew aren't waiting for potential trouble. she's a virtual polar test lab for cutting edge science and technology - so when disaster hits in an environment like this, the coast guard will be prepared for the worst. >> everything up here is abnormal for the coast guard. >> scot tripp is a lead scientist for the coast guard's research and development center. >> you guys have done work on oil spill response what has that been? >> we do all kinds of oil research with respect to skimming devices... booms to collect it...
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how to store it how to move it - just about every aspect. and what's unique about up here is the coast guard is really good at recovering oil in the water, but we had that ice water interface that really hadn't been broached much and up here that's a common occurrence. so up here you can't use a boom to collect the oil in an icy environment because it'll rip the boom apart. you can't store it in a big rubber inflatable dirigible on the side of the boat because the ice will shear it. >> the question is which measures would work in this harsh environment? in 2012, the coast guard tested out a skimmer with brushes designed to grab oil out of icy water. it was used on a simulated spill of peat moss and oranges because they move like oil on water. any substance collected by the skimmer was sent to the ship for storage through a steel hose. >> how did that go? we tested against the ice and how to use it against the ice. it's limited in how much it can collect because you've got a very small area that you're
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working in, but it worked really well. >> industry and academic researchers agree - mechanical skimmers can be a viable option, but only if the ice doesn't keep them from contacting the oil. when you do mechanical cleanup - it is great if you can remove 10% of the oil that's spilled. >> nancy kinner is director of the center of spills and environmental hazards at the university of new hampshire. >> in reality, for example, when the deepwater horizon - less than 6 percent of the oil was collected by all of those skimmers and boom that was deployed and you can imagine what that would be like in the arctic. >> in most large spills, like bp's 2010 deepwater horizon blowout, only a small percentage of oil is mechanically removed from the environment. most of the oil is typically burned off in a process called in-situ burning, or dispersed into the water column - either by nature, or with help from
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chemical dispersants. >> in the arctic those are your main human interventions that can occur and both of those have pros and cons. what you are trying to do is the least bad thing. >> burning creates smoke that is toxic and leaves residue that can sink and potentially harm marine life. dispersants are designed to break the oil down into tiny droplets so it diffuses into the water column. but research on the exxon valdez spill released in september 2015 shows that even trace levels of crude oil can be toxic to fish embryos and may have contributed to collapses in salmon and hering populations in the prince william sound. another option is letting nature deal with the oil through biodegradation. >> biodegradation, in other words, having organisms that
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naturally occur in the water degrade the oil. it's a relatively slow process in the cold temperatures that we see in the arctic. that also can be a very slow and long term process. it's all a tradeoff if you have oil accumulating at the surface... you have birds, you have marine mammals that can come up thru that oil and that can be very problematic. the question is what are the impacts of those dispersants, how efficient are they, what's going to happen potentially to public health and to seafood safety, all of those questions. >> noaa scientists aboard the healy are also testing devices to help responders track oil, like this surveillance balloon called an aerostat. todd jacobs is the head of noaa's unmanned aircraft program. >> out here what it does is it provides us the ability to provide a persistent camera
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source so we can have very high, stable resolution camera looking at oil in the water if we were dealing with an oil spill it could help also vector small boats and personnel around. >> in a 2014 mission aboard the healy, fluorescein dye was used to simulate oil so researchers could study how it moves in ice. these images were taken by a camera mounted on an aerostat during that mission. the idea is images could be relayed to an incident command thousands of miles away on land. >> the holy grail is to be able to actually send photographs and full motion video with their associated telemetry so both the latitude and longitude feeding incident command centers. >> what about an oil spill in the arctic? >> i do believe if and when that event occurs, it's going to be a difficult event to deal with. the concern is it's a fairly short operation window... if something long playing out like say deepwater horizon
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occurred up here, it would be a catastrophe. >> in the chukchi sea, winter and its ice come early. ice typically begins forming towards the end of october. in early july, techknow reached out to shell about its exploration plans in the arctic. shell did not agree to an on camera interview, but in an emailed response to questions shell seemed confident of it's ability in arctic conditions. on the issue of oil spilled in ice, shell wrote "through large-scale research trials, we have found that - with a suite of tools available to us, including dispersants, arctic-tested booms and skimmers and in-situ burning - we can effectively recover oil in a variety of arctic conditions, including broken ice and slush". on september 28th, shell made a stunning announcement - it was ceasing all arctic operations. they released this statement "shell has found indications of
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oil and gas, but these are not sufficient to warrant further exploration in the burger prospect. shell will now cease further exploration activity in offshore alaska for the foreseeable future". but as shell was abandoning its project, the italian oil firm eni announced its plans to drill for oil in norwegian arctic waters by the end of 2015. coming up- the lure of big oil, and the oil industry's own tests in the arctic. we want to hear what you think about these stories. join the conversation by following us on twitter and at aljazeera.com/techknow. >> meet the unsung hero of social change. >> i feel like i'm suppose to do something, >> breaking down barriers. >> sometimes i have to speak when other people say be quiet.
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>> shaping our future. >> i actually am committed to a different, better, stronger, healthier america. >> i lived that character. >> we will be able to see change.
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>> these are the nightmare scenarios that haunt people when they think about oil in the artic. bp's deepwater horizon blowout that dumped more than 3 million barrels of oil into the gulf of mexico - and the exxon valdez spill - which devastated pince
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william sound. but for decades, the oil industry has been joining forces to prepare for the unthinkable in the arctic. one of the key questions? how will oil behave in ice? the industry's current work on that question is being done by the arctic response technology joint industry program. they did not respond to techknow's request for an interview, but this video is posted for public viewing on their website. >> ice can often be our friend. it can provide a condition for us where the ice acts like a boom or a barrier that will limit the spread of oil. >> the industry position on ice is consistent. according to this 2010 industry sponsored report "the presence of cold water and ice can enhance response effectiveness by limiting the spread of oil". but ice is not always your friend. andy mahoney is an ice researcher at the university of
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alaska, fairbanks. he says industry field research shows oil can get into ice. >> what we do know from limited field experiments, mostly in norway, and even more limited field experiments in ice tanks and cold labs, that the oil will make its way into the ice. ice will be somewhat like a sponge, and so you'll have a mix of oil covered ocean, oil covered ice and oil impregnated ice. >> jip researchers suggest that oil impregnated ice can also be an advantage when it comes to cleanup. >> while it may limit our access to it, it also limits the access of that oil to marine life and to anything else that might be impacted by the oil. >> but dr. mahoney also studies ice movement. ice floes are constantly drifting and can move hundreds of miles within weeks. >> that's why it's important to understand ice motion. and you can do that with radars
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like on this ship. >> in 2014 the national academy of sciences released this report on the state of science and technology to respond to an arctic oil spill. the report found that "oil trapped within pack ice tends to move with the ice, which is in turn driven by currents and winds". oil under ice can also be a challenge according to unh's nancy kinner. >> if the oil is released under a sheet of ice, how do you find where the oil has gone once it's released? because you can't just look down into the water or look easily and see the slick. so that makes it a problem - detection. >> jip researchers are currently tesing sensors to detect oil under ice in an ice field they created in this lab in fairbanks alaska. >> so we could go out in all weathers and detect an oil spill, no matter where it might occur, in the arctic. >> once the oil is found, the jip says it has several ways to
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get at it - if the ice is solid and stable. >> mining of the ice, that is physically going out and scraping oil off of the surface. we may at times auger holes down to that oiled region and allow the oil to flow up to the surface of the ice where it's exposed. >> but this type of technology isn't designed for water and ice conditions. >> if you have kind of that ice cube type of function, you can imagine how can you clean up oil in that case without actually taking in the ice, cleaning off the ice and then discharging the ice, these are all very very difficult things to deal with. >> the joint industry program is testing chemicals designed to herd oil in icy conditions into smaller areas - so its easier to burn. the chemical is sprayed from a helicopter into a test tank with water and ice. >> to do in-situ burning, you have to have a thick enough layer of oil to ignite it and to get it to burn.
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and that's very difficult to do sometimes. >> jip video also shows oil being ignited from the helicopter. they are even testing igniting the burns from drones. the idea is to keep responders from having to get on a small boat - which can be dangerous in icy arctic waters. >> there have been a lot of studies to look at how to improve response technology in the arctic. the technology is probably not what the problem is. the problem is that it's just a very hard environment to work in. >> bob bee is co-founder of the center for catastrophic risk at uc berkeley. he's also spent 15 years working for shell. >> so do we have the ability to cleanup oil in arctic water and ice? >> no, we don't. >> bob keeps reminders of what he calls the power of lethal arrogance - a bottle of crude oil from the deepwater horizon spill - and this shell of a
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marine worm he found on alaska's north slope in 1962. >> and what was the idea of marine life back then in the arctic? >> that we didn't have any! we can't believe that in that cold, severe, ice covered environment there's any life. >> do you see shell's halting of activities in the us arctic as good news... bad news? >> i think it's both. shell was not successful in finding commercial quantities of hydrocarbons. the good news is we do have more time so that we can better prepare. >> so we've got some more time to be prepared. so you don't think we're quite prepared enough now? >> my personal opinion is we are not well enough prepared. we've dramatically underestimated the risk of potentially large releases of hydrocarbons to this
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environment. >> as for the impact of oil if there was a spill - in this video also posted on the website, an environmental scientist for shell is interviewed about how it might effect wildlife in the arctic. >> the review has clearly shown that arctic species are not more sensitive than temperate species. they react to oil the same way. >> but researchers we talked to said marine life in the arctic is especially at risk from a spill, because they are already living on the edge. >> the arctic is changing much more rapidly with respect to all of its environmental conditions. it's a very harsh environment, it's very difficult to survive and get by as an organism living in the arctic. any perturbation of that environment is going to be difficult, especially with a pollution event. >> this thing isn't just marine life, this thing is covered in other marine life. it's complex. >> that's right. it's complex interconnected... if you do damage to one you do
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damage to all. >> coming up on techknow: >> if some disaster occurs, are we ready? >> alaska's reliance... and reservations about oil in the arctic.
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>> the ocean is an extremely important part of our lifestyle, any changes that occur here are going to affect us in some manner. >> austin ahmasuk is an inupiaq native who was born and raised in nome alaska.
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>> my major concern with any oil development in that neck of the woods is response readiness. what's going to happen if some disaster occurs. are we ready? and, frankly, from from my own experience in this region, i know that we're not totally ready for a gigantic disaster, that's what scares me. >> but alaskans also depend on oil to keep their state running. about 90% of its budget is supplied by oil revenues. slumping oil prices have caused those revenues to drop. >> there's been drilling done in the arctic for years. successfully. >> denise michels has been mayor of nome alaska for 12 years. >> if an oil spill happens, by law the companies that are doing the drilling, are supposed to have assets in place to control that. but the reality is, our weather is unpredictable, and so it's any marine activity happening in the arctic that we're concerned
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about. >> i think living in alaska you become quite aware of the realities of oil. it brings a tremendous number of benefits. there are ways of life that aren't possible without it. we have to find a way to live with it. but on the other hand, we can't go back if we have a significant accident. there will be long term implications and the people who are on the front lines of that are the people living up here in the arctic. >> of course, oil rigs aren't the only potential source of a major oil spill. shipping traffic is on also the rise and unlike oil companies, they aren't required to have resources at the ready to respond to a disaster. >> what we're concerned about is the international straight where we have no idea what's coming across, what they're carrying, you need to place assets for environmental response. right now there's no onshore assets.
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>> there is really a dearth of ports along that coastline. so you can't mobilize a lot of ships. there aren't very many services along that area. >> the port of nome is only 22 feet deep which is far too shallow for any big ship. in fact their are no deepwater ports in all of the alaskan arctic the nearest one is 800 miles to the south in the aleutian islands. >> right now nome is being considered as the site for a new deepwater port. mayor michels thinks that would be a great start. >> so you think that you guys need the infrastructure? >> we do. we're the eyes and the ears here in the arctic. we live here. the us, if they want to be at the top of the game as an arctic nation, they need to invest in the infrastructure needed for everything that's happening up here. >> you've worked with shell for a very long time. >> yes. >> do you think they are going to go back? >> yes, not only shell but other operators.
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there is a big prize there. given that we do have accidents and we will, we need to have ways to lower the likelihoods of those accidents happening. >> you see exploration for oil and production of oil in the us arctic as risky? >> yes. >> yet you are supporting production in the long run? >> yes. >> why is that? >> those hydrocarbons are a very valuable public resource. we own it. and it's going to get more valuable into the future. >> so you think the benefits could vastly outweigh the risks. >> yes. >> and are we there? >> no. >> austin ahmasuk hopes those benefits don't come at the cost of his family's way of life. >> i want to live here, i want my children to live here and i want them to enjoy a clean environment. i want them to enjoy a kind of lifestyle that i have always lived. >> it really is kind of the
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greatest irony, right. the sea ice is melting because of the carbon emissions that are in the atmosphere right now, and that's allowing us to say, hey maybe it would be a good idea to go up and drill for more fossil fuels to cause more catastrophic climate change. >> now we heard it said time and time again that what works in the lower forty eight does not work up there in alaska, in the arctic - and i saw first hand things were breaking, the conditions were tough to even get their operations done. >> and oil companies across the globe are either stopping down production or actually pulling out of the arctic altogether, because the conditions are just so severe. >> and you know the energy market is also a big unknown here, so that's a part of the reason why they're pulling out too. >> well guys it's been a fascinating discussion from the environmental impacts to the economic ones and how tightly intertwined those two actually are in this case. and we'll be keeping you up to date as this story progresses. that's it for this edition of techknow, we'll see you next time. >> dive deep into these stories and go behind the scenes at aljazeera.com/techknow.
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