Shell Alaska's earlier drilling program in the Chukchi Sea. (Royal Dutch Shell )
Reporting from Seattle — Federal authorities have approved an oil spill response plan that could allow drilling to commence this summer in the Beaufort Sea, the first major offshore drilling in the Arctic since the early 1990s.
Though Shell Alaska still needs several final permits, the oil spill plan has been the most debated aspect of the upcoming drilling program, with fears that cleaning up an offshore blowout in the turbulent, often icy seas of the Arctic could be a formidable challenge.
“We have conducted an exhaustive review of Shell’s response plan for the Beaufort Sea,” James A. Watson, director of the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said in a statement. “Our focus moving forward will be to hold Shell accountable and to follow up with exercises, reviews and inspections to ensure that all personnel and equipment are positioned and ready.”
Shell, which has spent nearly $4 billion and five years preparing to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort and nearby Chukchi seas, said it hopes to begin drilling as early as July 10 and continue until just before the onset of ice in the fall. The program calls for halting operations during the late summer hunt for bowhead whales undertaken by local native Alaskans.
The oil spill response plan approved Wednesday is beefed up from an earlier plan, planning for a worst-case scenario three times bigger than what was studied before the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico sent planners back to the drawing boards.
The current plan requires Shell and its fleet of offshore oil response vessels to be ready to contain and clean up a discharge of up to 480,000 barrels of oil, representing a blowout of 16,000 barrels a day over a 30-day period. Such a spill would probably send oil pluming many miles offshore in a swath extending from just east of Prudhoe Bay to about 45 miles further east, at Brownlow Point on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, according to the document.
The plan suggests the likelihood of that happening is quite small: Shell is designing and prepositioning a containment device, similar to that which eventually halted the Deepwater Horizon blowout, that would theoretically be quickly clamped onto the well in the event that, as happened in the gulf, the built-in blowout preventer failed.
Federal officials say the chances of a blowout are much less likely at the substantially shallower depths and lower pressures of the Arctic.
But the plan does explore in some detail the scenario drilling opponents fear most: a spill at the end of the operations season in October, at the onset of the Arctic winter and the ice, darkness and powerful storms it brings.
The plan concedes that traditional mechanical means such as booms will become ineffective once freeze-up occurs and provides for “alternative response countermeasures” including in situ burning with helicopter-deployed torches and application of dispersants “when feasible and permitted.”
It suggests that icebreakers may still be able to open up leads to allow skimmers to access oil trapped next to or within heavier ice concentrations, and once oil is trapped under the ice, it can be tracked through the winter with the use of ground-penetrating radar, laser fluorosensors and other high-tech devices, the plan says.
While some work may be done atop coastal shorefast ice to remove oil trapped underneath, there is little likelihood of attacking oil under ice further out to sea, the plan concedes, acknowledging it will be “impractical and unsafe” to work from moving ice floes.
“They have all this high-tech equipment, and imagine trying to get it to work in the kind of conditions they have in an Arctic winter,” Chris Krenz, Arctic program manager for the conservation group Oceana, said in an interview. “Even to think we can track oil during the summertime, when there might be fog and other things, is a pretty big leap of faith, but to think we’d be able to track the oil under the ice in real-world conditions during the winter is just ludicrous — especially if it’s a major blowout.”
Drilling opponents are pointing to a still-uncontrolled gas leak near a Total platform in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland as an example of what can go wrong during offshore operations. Officials at the French energy company have said it could take six months to halt the release of gas.
“The gas spill in the North Sea and other recent disasters, including a recent natural gas blowout in Alaska, remind us that the risks are too great, particularly in places like the Arctic where the challenges are foreboding,” Alaska Wilderness League director Cindy Shogan said in a statement.