Spill report highlights risks of Arctic drilling

Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2011

ANCHORAGE — A presidential panel investigating the BP well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico urged “utmost care” for future drilling in remote waters off Alaska’s northern coasts.

Panel member Fran Ulmer, the former Alaska lieutenant governor and current chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage, said Tuesday that the panel recommended additional research for understanding the Arctic ecosystem and for oil spill containment.

“We do not say there should be a de facto moratorium waiting for that,” Ulmer said. “Instead, we talk about the importance of doing the research with a specific timeline and focusing the research on decisions that need to be made, both by the private sector and the public sector.”

The panel declined to comment on Shell Oil’s current application to drill in summer 2011. Substituting the panel’s judgment for that of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, she said, seemed inappropriate.

The report said frontier regions such as Alaska may be even more ill-equipped for drilling and a blowout than the gulf.

The seven-member panel said geological pressures in hydrocarbon deposits off Alaska’s shore likely will be substantially less than those at the Macondo well in the gulf, reducing risk of a blowout.

But the panel said drilling in the Beaufort or Chukchi seas faces other special challenges, starting with extreme cold, extended seasons of darkness, hurricane-strength storms and pervasive fog.

The slow pace of natural dispersion means spilled oil would linger longer. Decision-makers are hampered because good scientific information exists for only a few species.

The nearest Coast Guard base on Kodiak Island is 1,000 miles away from the nearest prospects. The panel called for a federal program to address spill response that includes a Coast Guard presence and models for spill trajectory.

The report noted the tremendous interest to drill in waters off Alaska because of the expected abundance of petroleum and the threat to the state’s economy as production on shore continues to diminish. The report notes that areas off Alaska’s north coast rank only behind the Gulf of Mexico in estimated domestic reserves.

Shell Oil has invested more than $3.5 billion in the Arctic outer continental shelf, including $2.1 billion in leases in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast at a 2008 sale that has been challenged in court.

The only current application to drill is Shell’s plan for at least one exploratory well this summer in the Beaufort Sea. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said drilling in 2011 would be subject to additional environmental assessments.

Environmental groups seized on the spill panel’s report to call for an immediate halt to Arctic drilling.

Bill Eichbaum, a World Wildlife Fund vice president, said no drilling should be allowed in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas until information gaps are closed and adequate spill response is in place.

“Moving forward with the issuance of exploratory drilling permits for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas at this time would be reckless,” he said in a statement.

Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby said in a statement the company appreciated that the panel concluded that a blanket moratorium is not warranted in the Arctic.

“We look forward to achieving a more thorough understanding of the commission’s recommendations and assessing perceived gaps against the unprecedented steps Shell has taken to pursue safe, environmentally responsible exploration in shallow water off the coast of Alaska,” Slaiby said.

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