Gulf oil spill tragedy gives us pause here in Alaska

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2010

The nation might sense the anguish of those whose lives lie in the path of the Gulf Coast disaster, but we Alaskans know that hollow ache firsthand. Just 90 miles from where I stand, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling millions of gallons of oil and leaving scars that still linger. Though Prince William Sound is slowly healing itself, the massive herring runs that drove both the ecosystem and the fishing economy have yet to return. We can only hope our loss isn't a harbinger of what awaits the people and wildlife of the Gulf.

Their misfortune, though, might have spared Alaskans a new disaster. Incredible as it may seem, when the gulf began spewing, we were about to take a gargantuan risk in the pristine waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, off Alaska's northern shore - perhaps the most potentially catastrophic offshore drilling environment on earth. Royal Dutch Shell was poised to begin drilling exploratory wells July 1 in this fragile ecosystem rich in rare wildlife, from polar bears to eider ducks. But in the wake of the BP catastrophe, the Obama administration stepped forward and announced a moratorium until at least 2011 on all new offshore drilling plans, including Shell's - a courageous and correct move in the face of an ongoing environmental crisis caused by repeated, institutional failures of both government and industry.

Both the past and the current nightmare offer stark reminders of the staggering costs of catastrophic oil spills in coastal environments. Shell's now-delayed arctic exploration plans demonstrate just how necessary that timeout was, and what we stood to lose.

Though the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean seem worlds apart, there were ominous similarities between BP's Deepwater Horizon debacle and Shell's blueprint.

"Both (the Arctic seas and the deep waters of the Gulf) are extreme environments in which the industry has very little engineering experience," says Jeffrey Short, Pacific Science director of Oceana and one of the world's leading experts on oil spills. "They're pushing the boundaries of exploration deeper and farther, and the odds of something going catastrophically wrong are greatly escalated."

Adding to the uncertainty and danger were those notoriously lax permitting processes. In granting permits to both BP's and Shell's exploration operations, the federal Minerals Management Service did not even analyze the effects of a catastrophic blowout, which relieved BP and Shell from producing adequate contingency plans for such high-magnitude spills. The rationale offered by the corporations and echoed by the MMS was that such events were deemed so unlikely that they didn't warrant analysis. Even so, Shell, like BP, fought for less regulation.

However extreme the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico may be, the turbulent waters of Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort seas could pose even greater difficulties. Shell would be drilling as many as 140 miles offshore in a remote, often hostile environment. Even summer weather can mean 20-foot seas and gale-force winds. Fog may settle in for weeks, and ice conditions can change overnight. There are no deep-water ports nearby; and the closest full-size runway to the lease area is more than 100 miles away. In the event of a major spill, mountains of emergency gear and personnel would travel huge distances over narrow logistical corridors (arctic weather permitting), and be met by a shortage of everything from lodging to boats capable of pulling oil containment booms.

A Pew Environment Group point-by-point analysis of a Shell's spill contingency plan indicated a severe lack of resources for dealing with anything beyond a moderate spill under ideal conditions - a doubtful scenario. There is no proven technology for containing, let alone cleaning up, a blowout or catastrophic spill in shifting ice, a condition that defines the arctic. The nearest Coast Guard station is more than a thousand miles away.

Shell, which in the wake of the Gulf disaster has beefed up plans aimed at spill prevention, remains confident of its ability to drill safely. It has voluntarily added a pre-built coffer dam, more frequent testing and a remote-triggered "hot stab" device for "I have complete confidence in the technical integrity of our well plans," wrote Shell President Marvin Odum in a recent letter to the MMS.

These reassurances echo hollow off the oiled waters far to the south. While Shell should be commended for emphasizing spill prevention, it has done little to ensure its ability to control a large arctic spill - an indication that it just hasn't absorbed the lesson of the Gulf: the need for an effective, plug-and-play fallback plan in the event of a disaster.

"If the Exxon Valdez and the Gulf teach us anything," says Alaska marine scientist Rick Steiner, "it's that people make mistakes, and equipment fails. There will be spills." In fact, the MMS estimated a 40 percent likelihood of a major spill over the 30-year projected life of Lease Sale 193, the area Shell intends to develop - hardly gambler's odds.

In the end, the success of President Obama's bold move to suspend new offshore drilling depends on what his administration accomplishes during this hiatus. A resumption of business as usual is not an option. A supporting web of redundant safety measures, major investment in advanced spill response technology, fundamental reform of offshore leasing, and a renewed commitment toward safe drilling on the part of both government regulators and the oil industry are required. The time for action is now.

• Juneau-based writer Nick Jans is a member of USA Today's board of editorial contributors. He has written about the oil industry in Alaska a number of times over the past 15 years.

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