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Group questions Arctic drilling in ad campaign

Posted: December 8, 2011 - 1:06am

ANCHORAGE — As the federal government takes testimony on proposed offshore petroleum lease sales in the Arctic, a national nonprofit organization is buying television ads that question whether current drilling plans should go forward.

Pew Environment Group over the weekend paid for national television commercials that imply that the Arctic is not ready for drilling to move forward. They begin with the question: “Are we really ready to drill for oil in the Arctic?”

“There are still unanswered questions, and I think there is a lot of pressure in our country right now to drill for oil,” said Marilyn Heiman, the group’s U.S. Arctic program director.

After pictures of icebergs in placid waters, the ad switches to an image of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig burning in the Gulf of Mexico. It notes that the Gulf of Mexico blowout took three months to cap and that an Arctic blowout would face the additional challenges of drifting ice, subzero temperatures, a lack of Coast Guard presence, no roads, and no ports for 1,000 miles.

The advertisements appeared during “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation,” and “State of the Union.” Additional airings were scheduled for “Morning Joe” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

The Obama administration in November announced a five-year drilling plan covering 2012 to 2017 that proposed 15 lease sales, including three off Alaska’s coast. The Arctic lease sales were scheduled for near the end of the five-year period to allow for scientific evaluations in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management this week began taking testimony on its draft environmental review of the drilling plan. The agency scheduled testimony in Fairbanks for Thursday night and Anchorage for Friday night.

A subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell hopes to drill up to two exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea and three in the Chukchi Sea in 2012. Shell purchased the Chukchi leases in a 2008 sale that continues to face court challenges.

Shell has stressed that proposed offshore wells in Arctic waters will be in relatively shallow water and will not face the intense wellhead pressure that BP encountered in the Gulf of Mexico. Shell’s drill ships will be accompanied by spill response vessels. The company is creating a containment cap system that could be lowered over a blowout in the remote chance blowout.

Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said by e-mail that much like challenges and appeals of permits, Pew’s paid campaign was expected.

“The ads ask the public a legitimate question: Are we really ready to drill in the Arctic? No one has asked that question more in the last five years than Shell, and the short answer is, yes — we are ready to drill,” he said.

Shell, he said, is the company best positioned to do that work. “Given the experience, technology and world-class assets we bring to the Arctic offshore, we remain absolutely confident we can operate safely in the Arctic or we wouldn’t attempt to do so,” he said.

Smith said the ads do not accurately portray the conditions the company will encounter on Alaska’s outer continental shelf.

“While that tactic is predictable, it’s also unfortunate because the general public deserves an honest dialogue when it comes to important issues like drilling in the Arctic OCS,” he said.

Heiman said Pew is not opposed to all offshore drilling but wants to see it be as safe as possible. Shell’s point about differences in drilling between the Gulf and the Chukchi are valid, Heiman said, and it would not take as long to drill a relief well, she said. But the weather is far more extreme and shallow depths present their own challenges, she said.

She said the company’s vessels for ice-breaking or spill response cannot go in shallow water, and therefore the company would have to depend on other resources in the area. “For the most part, there is no capability in the Arctic right now for near-shore spill response that can operate in ice conditions,” she added.

A blowout late in the open water season also would mean a cleanup in ice, she said. “We just think there’s some very careful decisions that still need to be made to ensure that we don’t have a catastrophe up in the Arctic.”

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