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Oil Spill Prevention in Antarctica

Oil has fuelled Antarctic science and exploration for the past 100 years. Oil permits efficient transport to and within Antarctica, allows the building and running of research stations, and powers the equipment scientists need to study the continent.

Major oil spills are rare in the Antarctic, but as human presence in the region increases, so does the risk of oil spills. The largest recorded spill in Antarctica happened in 1989 when the Bahia Paraiso, an Argentine ship en route to re-supply one of Argentina’s research stations ran aground and sank off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula near the USA’s Palmer research station, spilling 600,000 litres of marine diesel into the sea.

An oil spill defence boom being deployed during an exercise at Rothera Research Station

Because of the potentially disastrous effects of oil spills on the pristine Antarctic environment, the Antarctic Treaty’s Protocol on Environmental Protection requires all Treaty nations to prepare contingency plans to deal quickly and effectively with environmental emergencies resulting from their Antarctic operations.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) works hard to prevent oil spills. Bulk fuel at BAS research stations is stored in tanks with secondary containment. And, because it is the lightest and least persistent fuel available, BAS uses marine gas oil or AVTUR as the standard fuel on its ships and research stations.

There has never been a large oil spill from a BAS research station or ship, but BAS is prepared. It has developed detailed plans for its ships and stations, should a spill occur. To make sure these plans work, BAS carries out oil spill response exercises in Antarctica twice a year at each wintering station.

An annual Antarctic Oil Pollution Course, directed by BAS, is open to other Antarctic operators and since it was set up in 1992, has been attended by staff from nine different nations. As well as this, BAS co-ordinates joint oil spill exercises with Antarctic operators from other countries.