Being responsive

Joe Mullin

October 6, 2016

Joe Mullin gives an update on the Arctic Response Technology joint industry project.

Workers conduct field trials of the first-of-its-kind aerial oil spill response system near Fairbanks, Alaska. Photos from Arctic Response Technology.

The oil and gas industry has a wide range of viable technologies, beyond mechanical recovery, for oil spill response in the presence of ice in open water.

The key characteristic that distinguishes the Arctic from other oil and gas production areas in which industry has operated is the presence of ice.

Ice conditions can vary substantially throughout the Arctic, depending on the season and location. The need to adapt to these conditions in turn drives selection of options for effective response. Operational challenges for Arctic oil spill response include: remoteness, low temperatures, seasonal darkness, and the presence of seasonal sea ice. While the industry remains focused first and foremost on preventing any oil spill in the Arctic, it is also committed to be prepared for a spill, however unlikely.

To build on the existing research and continue improving the technologies and methodologies for Arctic oil spill response, a joint industry program (JIP) was established in 2012, sponsored by nine international oil and gas companies (BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Eni, ExxonMobil, North Caspian Operating Co. (NCOC), Shell, Statoil and Total).

Its members work collaboratively to create international research programs to further enhance industry knowledge and capabilities in the area of Arctic oil spill response, advance Arctic oil spill response strategies and equipment, and increase understanding of the potential impacts of oil and oil spill response methods on the marine environment.

As the largest program dedicated to this area of research, the JIP has engaged the world’s foremost experts on oil spill response, development, and operations from across industry, academia, and independent scientific institutions to perform scientific research to address the differing aspects involved in oil spill response. This includes 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).

Technological advances

Ignition of herder oil slick with the Helitorch.

The JIP has so far delivered improvements in remote sensing, oil slick ignition and trajectory modeling. A significant achievement has also been in the area of herding agents (herders).

Herders work by rapidly spreading across a water surface to create a surfactant monolayer that reduces the water surface tension. When the surfactants reach the boundary of a thin oil slick, they affect the balance of surface forces acting at the edge of the slick and cause the oil to contract to a new, thicker equilibrium state. The slick thickness produced by herders, at 3-5mm, provides favorable conditions for effective ignition and ISB without the need for containment booms.

There have been decades of studies, extensive laboratory and field research on the use of herding agents, which has proved they can provide an additional tool to support the use of ISB as an effective response strategy in ice-covered and open waters. Herder research has continued under the auspices of the JIP with the development of an integrated herder delivery and aerial ignition system, with field research experiments conducted in Alaska and offshore Norway.

ISB has been considered a primary spill counter-measure for oil spills in ice-affected waters for over 40 years, from the start of offshore exploration and production in the Beaufort Sea in the 1970s.

Field research

In April 2015, the JIP conducted a series of first-of-their-kind tests of an aerial oil spill response system for the Arctic offshore in a purpose-built test basin at the Poker Flat Research Range outside Fairbanks, Alaska.

With the purpose to validate the use of herders in combination with ISB when both are applied by helicopter, five releases of Alaska North Slope (ANS) crude oil, were conducted using a variety of delivery platforms to spray herders and then ignite the herded slick. The aim was to develop a rapid response aerial system that enhances responders’ ability to use offshore ISB in drift ice conditions.

The tests successfully demonstrated that applying herding agents and subsequently igniting a free-floating oil slick using equipment mounted on a helicopter is feasible. The JIP used the results from the Alaska test program to initiate a new project to develop and test an integrated herder delivery and ignition system, which will allow both functions to be employed in one flight without landing or hovering to pick up another load. The system will be flight tested and then approval sought from the Federal Aviation Administration and the European Aviation Safety Agency.

Step change in response

Aerial application of herders to enable ISB without booms is potentially a significant advance for offshore oil spill response in both open water and ice. This technology will have the ability for aerial application of both the herding agent and ignition source (igniter) and as such, becomes an extremely rapid and effective new response tool, which can potentially achieve high removal efficiencies in remote areas with faster response times.

Transfer of technology

Realizing an opportunity to transfer herder and ISB technology, the JIP recently participated in the 2016 Norwegian Clean Seas Association for Operating Companies (NOFO) oil on water exercise conducted offshore Norway. These field trials were conducted to validate the use of herders in open water conditions and to examine the ability of herders to dampen breaking waves to determine if herders can increase the window-of-opportunity for ISB.


Results from the JIP have highlighted the large body of existing knowledge supporting industry Arctic oil spill preparedness with a wide range of viable oil spill response technologies in the presence of ice in open water beyond mechanical recovery.

Research underway is advancing dispersant effectiveness; improving capability for modeling the fate of dispersed oil in ice; extending understanding of the environmental effects of an Arctic oil spill; advancing oil spill modeling trajectory capabilities in ice; extending the capability to detect and map oil in darkness, low visibility, in and under ice; aerial ignition of oil spills; and developing new capability to use herders to expand the “window of opportunity” for ISB response operations.

Sixteen research reports are available on the JIP website ( with 15 additional reports expected in the near future. The JIP will complete all research projects on or before 31 December 2016 with reporting and manuscript submission to peer reviewed journals continuing through Q2 2017.

Joe Mullin has more than 40 years of scientific research and program management experience in the areas of marine science, oceanography, and oil spill response.  Following his retirement from the US government, he was hired as the program manager for the Arctic JIP.