Reporting from Seattle — Facing last-minute questions over its plan to launch exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, Shell Oil Co. pledged Monday to deploy a prefabricated coffer dam ready for "immediate" use in the event of a blowout, with a full-scale oil spill response within an hour.
In a letter intended to reassure federal officials that offshore drilling can safely begin in the fragile Arctic in July despite the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Shell said it also would be ready to apply dispersant immediately underwater near the source of any oil flow and would have a remotely operated submersible and trained divers at the drilling site.
A 100-ton containment dome was deployed over the Gulf of Mexico leak, but it was abandoned when it became clogged with ice-like crystallized methane gas. Shell said its coffer dam would "take into consideration" the problems BP experienced and presumably provide a workable containment method.
"Shell is committed to undertaking a safe and environmentally responsible exploration program in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in 2010," Shell President Marvin E. Odum said in a letter to the federal Minerals Management Service, dated Friday but made public Monday. "I am confident that we are ready to conduct the … program safely, and, I want to be clear, the accountability for this program rests with Shell."
After the BP disaster off the coast of Louisiana, federal officials asked Shell for additional information about its oil spill prevention and response plans, especially since a spill in the remote Chukchi and Beaufort seas could have devastating consequences on the delicate Arctic ecosystem.
Critics say no full-fledged oil spill cleanup drills have been conducted in the Chukchi, where Shell will be relying on a fleet of response vessels accompanying the drilling rig and other equipment stationed at the remote village of Wainwright, Alaska, and elsewhere on the North Slope.
Marilyn Heiman, U.S. Arctic program director for the Pew Environment Group, said cleanup plans described in Shell's letter still seem insufficient.
"They do not begin to have enough vessels and equipment and people. If they did have a spill that lasted more than a couple weeks and had to fly stuff in, there are no runways. There's only a boat ramp at Wainwright; there's no boat dock there," she said.
Shell emphasized in its letter that the chances of a blowout are far less than at the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which occurred in waters 5,000 feet deep. That well encountered pressures two to three times greater than Shell expects in Alaska, the company said, where it will drill in about 150 feet of water.
Shell also has enhanced its blowout prevention equipment — the apparent failure of which contributed to the BP spill. Shell said its devices would be tested weekly instead of every 14 days — as it had originally proposed — and the blowout preventers could be manually operated if necessary.