Ulmer: New safety effort needed for Arctic drilling, protection

Alaska's oil spill commission member speaks to Legislature about response to Gulf disaster

Posted: Tuesday, March 01, 2011

It was a series of mistakes by top managers at BP and other companies that led the disastrous Deepwater Horizon blowout, but Alaska oil spill commission member Fran Ulmer said that should not preclude drilling for oil in the Arctic.


The commission’s report, requested by President Barack Obama, provides a “roadmap for how we can proceed in the Arctic in a way that’s as responsible as possible,” she said.

Ulmer, currently chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage, and former lieutenant governor, Juneau mayor and House minority leader when she represented Juneau in the Legislature, was the only Alaskan on the spill commission, formally called the National Commmission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

Her presentation Monday at the Capitol was sponsored by Senate Resources Co-chairman Joe Paskvan, D-Fairbanks.

There were numerous Alaskans involved in the massive Gulf response who wanted to see Alaska avoid that fate, Ulmer said.

“We had any number of Alaskans talk about how important it is that things be done right in the Arctic,” she said.

What’s clear, she said, is that they weren’t done right in the Gulf, with BP, Halliburton and Transocean sharing various amounts of blame.

“Let’s just say there were a lot of mistakes made,” she said.

The commission’s job wasn’t to determine liability, she said, which will be done in court and other forums. What Ulmer said she hoped to do was keep it from happening again.

There’s a compelling need, she said, for the industry to develop a culture of safety.

She’d like that to be industry led, possibly with a safety institute based the nuclear industry’s successful model.

At the same time, while the oil industry is ultimately responsible, the federal government has a regulatory and response role.

“The American people expect the American government to be there,” she said.

Risks cannot be eliminated, but other counties have done a better job than the U.S. has in reducing risk, she said.

“We do not compare favorably to peer nations,” she said, giving the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia as examples.

Following the Exxon Valdez tanker spill, double-hulled tankers and tug escorts were developed. Ulmer said the oil industry must learn from Deepwater Horizon and make new improvements in safety and response.

“There have been changes in the industry as well, there’s been a lot of progress in containment systems.”

Even if the United States doesn’t develop the Arctic, neighboring nations will and the industry and Coast Guard need the ability to protect our shores, she said.

Ulmer will speak about the commission’s report at 7 p.m. tonight in the Egan Lecture Hall at UAS. A question-and-answer session will follow.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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