Contemplating an Arctic oil spill

New drilling for oil could commence in 2011

The waters off northern Alaska may be “the largest oil province in the United States” after the Gulf, notes Edward Itta, a native of Barrow , Alaska. He is also mayor of the North Slope Borough , an 88,000-square-mile jurisdiction that runs across the upper part of the state. And in a September 27 videoconference with the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling , he tried to impress upon the commissioners just how remote his neck of the tundra is.

Despite hugging the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, the North Slope — home to America’s northernmost outposts — has no port. Roads permit travel between some North Slope communities, but these highways don’t connect with towns in central or south Alaska. So anything not native to the area must be flown in — or shipped in, once the long winter’s ice has broken up.

Although there are plenty of petroleum resources underfoot and undersea, the region’s harsh, unforgiving weather makes efforts to extract those hydrocarbons difficult at least six months a year.

“The Arctic possesses a distinct set of challenges” to energy developers, Itta notes. Safely drilling for oil here is different than in the Gulf’s deep-water sites. And in many ways, he told the commissioners, it’s “far more daunting” than extracting oil offshore anywhere in the Lower 48 — including from reservoirs miles below the Gulf’s surface.

In the Arctic, he argues, “responding to a small [oil] spill will be hard enough. Responding to a massive spill is impossible.” For instance, the nearest Coast Guard station is 800 miles away. The waters are reliably ice-free and open to ships only from mid-July to mid-October. Winters are dark much of the day, and storms can bring in brutally frigid winds.

In this environment, if something goes wrong, help and supplies had better both be onsite, because bringing them in during even the summer could take days or weeks.

For 84 straight days, a crippled BP well in the Gulf of Mexico spewed an estimated 5 million barrels of crude oil and plenty of natural gas. Although long-term environmental impacts of these releases may take years to assess, scientists and accident-response teams already have gleaned some important immediate lessons for drilling in the Gulf — and remote places like the Arctic.

Response plans Engineer Peter Slaiby says oil companies are well aware of the challenges outlined. A vice president for Shell Alaska , he noted that his company is petitioning to drill two wells in the Arctic next year. And in line with that, it has drafted a special oil-response plan for coping with any spills “that will be ready from the moment we start drilling. And it will be very different from what we saw in the Gulf of Mexico in that it won’t take a phone call to start the plan.”

He pointed to a PowerPoint slide that showed the “assets” Shell planned to have onsite to cope with an accident. They included booms and landing craft to ferry people and materials between ships and the shore; barges, skimmers and pumps in the near-shore waters; and tankers and work boats further offshore fitted with skimmers, pumps and booms. All will be “ready 24/7,” he said.

“We have also agreed to do additional measures,” he noted, such as storing a second rig that can drill a relief well, if necessary. Each blow-out preventer — the device that is designed to prevent the type of accident that destroyed the BP’s Gulf well — will be tested weekly, versus every two weeks. And wells will be fitted with a second set of shear rams to shut down errant wells.

Preparing for the ‘worst case’

“One of the key lessons of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response is that we must always be preparing for the worst-case scenarios,” said Coast Guard Capt. John Caplis, chief of the service’s Office of Incident Management and Preparedness in San Pedro, Calif.

Alas, in the Arctic, “the government has not engaged in worst-case planning,” argued Dennis Takahashi-Kelso, a vice president of the Ocean Conservancy and Alaska’s Commissioner of Environmental Conservation at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill two decades ago.

He told the Commission that after the Interior Department reviewed Shell’s 2010 assessment of environmental risks that might be associated with Arctic exploration, it concluded that “a very large spill from a well-controlled incident is not a reasonably foreseeable event, and therefore this environmental assessment does not analyze the impacts of such a worst-case scenario.”

And the lesson regulators and drillers should take away from the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon spills, he maintains, is that “a gap often exists between the stated response capacity [of a driller] and the adequacy of the response under actual conditions.” For instance, BP had said in its spill-response plan that it was prepared to control and contain a bigger accident than the one that fouled the Gulf this year. It didn’t.

“The severe conditions of the Arctic make it likely that a substantial response gap exists much of the year,” Takahashi-Kelso said.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the editor of Science News for Students, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer.

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