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Leading UAF Scientists Call for Oil Spill Response Research Center

Fairbanks, AK - Oil companies have their eyes on the arctic, but many of the risks associated with offshore drilling in the far north haven’t been addressed.  That’s why scientists are working to establish a center for oil spill response research at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks campus by 2013.

A year and half ago, University of Alaska, Fairbanks Vice Chancellor of Research Mark Myers started calling UAF colleagues to find out about their expertise in sea ice, oil and gas development and arctic biology.  “People were already doing a lot of individual projects that relate to potential oil and gas development or oil spills from ships that aren’t related to oil and gas development in the arctic,” says Myers.

There are many questions that remain unanswered when it comes to offshore drilling in the arctic.  Scientists aren’t sure how spilled oil might behave underneath a layer of sea ice, for example.  That’s why Myers wants to bring all the different research components together to form an oil spill response research center. “Well it would go in phases … coordinate the research," he explains.

Last year, the National Science Foundation rejected a  proposal  to fund the initiative. The University Board of Regents approved a 1.5 million dollar capital request that will go before the legislature this spring.  Myers says that money will be used for base infrastructure.  He hopes research grants and university tuition will cover other associated costs. “We wanna be teaching not only short courses, but building students with expertise in the subject matter so that Alaskans are prepared to deal with it," he says.  "We don’t have to import folks from outside with the higher technical ends of this, so the chemists, the engineers.”

Associate Vice Chancellor of Research, Nettie Labelle-Hamer is working with Myers on the effort.  With companies like Royal Dutch Shell moving forward with multi-year, multi-billion dollar exploratory drilling efforts off Alaska’s northern coast, Labelle-Hamer  says, the sooner things are in place, the better. "It’s very important now," she says, "and research takes time and one of the comments I got when we were first building this, was we don’t need this now we need it in 10 to 15 years and my response was if you need to know something from me as a researcher in 10 to 15 years, I should have started five years ago.”

Myers and Labelle-Hamer are working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard as well as a number of other agencies to secure funding and infrastructure.  They hope to have a research center up and running sometime this year.