Despite massive Gulf oil spill, offshore oil drilling starts soon in the Arctic Ocean

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If you thought BP's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill would give the oil companies some pause about offshore drilling, you were sadly mistaken. Armed with a just-issued appellate court ruling against environmentalists and Alaskan native tribes, Shell is pushing briskly ahead with plans to launch exploratory drilling off the north coast of Alaska in matter of weeks.

Yes, just as BP's Deepwater Horizon spill is revealed to be on course to outdo the nation's worst oil spill, Alaska's Exxon Valdez, another oil company wants to open up vast swaths off the the 49th state's coast for drilling. These are the same waters that produce the nation's largest fish catch.

Recall that, as we recounted not long ago, government auditors have established that the U.S. Minerals Management Service scientists were ordered to do a shoddy job analyzing environmental risks of this new drilling campaign in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas of the Arctic Ocean.

Recall also -- and we're having trouble understanding why this isn't coming up more right about now -- that it wasn't that long ago that Minerals Management Service officials literally were having sex and snorting cocaine with the oil-company execs their agency was supposed to be regulating. In a novel, this would not be believeable. But it happened.

So now that we've covered the institutional background behind this Alaskan oil-drilling adventure, let's consider it in light of the Gulf spill.  

Consider that while the Gulf "cleanup" efforts have been stalled by 8-foot seas, waves in the Arctic can swell to 20 feet on a semi-regular basis. In the icy north, winds that are famously stronger than those of the Gulf punish any vessel on the water.

While it's about 47 miles from the Louisiana coast to the Gulf spill site, the Chukchi Sea drilling would take place up to 250 miles from the nearest dock, which is at a speck of a settlement called Wainwright on the remote northwestern Alaskan coast. (And the real help would come from even farther: Dutch Harbor or Prudhoe Bay.)

Think about it: If the supposedly reliable system of "cascading in" oil-spill equipment can't work in the balmy springtime weather of New Orleans, how's it going to function in the total darkness and forever-ice of an Arctic winter?

After the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling, a coaltion of environmental groups issued a call for the Obama administration to intercede, saying: 

"With limited capacity to respond to potential spills and icy, harsh conditions, the Arctic is no place to take our next drilling gamble, especially when there are still so many unknowns – in the Arctic and in the Gulf." 

Before plunging ahead in the Arctic, let's at least understand what happened off New Orleans, the enviros are saying in their appeal to the Obama administration.

The president's actions show that he knows oil-spill cleanup plans for the Arctic are inadequate. A few weeks ago, Obama asked the U.S. Geological Survey to "determine what research is needed for an effective and reliable oil spill response in ice-covered regions." He asked the agency to report back by Oct. 1

So, let's get this straight: Drilling starts in summer. Sometime in the fall, the feds promise to have finished figuring out how much more research is needed -- research that could take years -- to know how to respond to an Arctic oil spill.

Shell, of course, says there is nothing to worry about. In an e-mail to the Associated Press, Shell VP Pete Slaiby told the AP's Dan Joling: "We are working hard to identify additional measures that could be incorporated into the (safety) program." Do tell.

The Anchorage Daily News' Elizabeth Bluemink reports that Slaiby and his colleagues have launched a campaign to convince federal regulators, the news media and the public that the proposed offshore drilling in Alaska will be safer than that in the Gulf.

That's because Shell, even with the appellate-court ruling by judges Alex Kozinski, Carlos Bea and Sandra Segal Ikuta in hand, still must clear at least four Obama administration hurdles: approvals by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Appeals Board, and the U.S. Interior Department, parent of the Minerals Management Service. 

It's worth taking a look at how both Shell and BP reacted to a September 2009 Obama administration proposal for stricter offshore-drilling-safety rules. BP protested:

"While BP is supportive of companies having a system in place to reduce risk, accidents, injuries and spills, we are not supportive of the extensive prescriptive regulations as proposed in this rule.  We believe industry’s current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that voluntary programs…have been and continue to be very successful.”  

And Shell had this to say for itself:

"It is our concern that the proposed regulation will add undue burden to our system and require additional collection of information and reporting [sic] the MMS. ... (T)he rule as interpreted could be a significant paperwork-intensive, rulemaking that will impact our business, both operationally and financially." 

It's starting to look like BP's Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf may have sufficiently invigorated federal regulators that they'll press ahead despite the industry's complaints.

I talked this week with Marilyn Heiman, Director of The Pew Environment Trust's U.S. Arctic Program, who points out that the methane hydrates that blocked BP's attempt to cap the Gulf spill will also be a problem in the Arctic.

And Heiman shared this eye-opening by-the-numbers comparison of spill-response equipment in the Gulf and the Arctic in the first 24 hours of a spill:

Number of vessels in the Gulf: 32. In the Arctic: 13

Skimming* capacity in the Gulf: 171,000 barrels a day. In the Arctic: 24,000 barrels a day.

Feet of boom** able to be used on high seas available in the Gulf: 417,000 feet. In the Arctic: less than 6,000 feet.

Offshore storage capacity*** in the Gulf: 122,000 barrels. In the Arctic: 28,000 barrels.

Said Heiman:

"We just don't think they have the abilty to respond to a blowout the size of the one in the Gulf. All the boom and dispersants in the world cannot manage what they’ve got going in the Gulf."

And here's another scenario to consider: Even an Arctic blowout that happens in the summer, when high temps are in the 40s, could easily stretch as long as the Gulf, 90 days or more. By then, the ocean is covered in ice. An uncontrolled blowout might spew all through the winter. Imagine what a toxic mess we'd see when the thaw comes.

-- Robert McClure

*Skimming is basically a sham, anyway, if it's supposed to "clean up" an oil spill. Response teams are pretty happy if they can round up one-tenth of the spilled oil. And it's sure to be less than that in the Gulf. 

** Boom is also widely misunderstood as "containing" an oil spill. That's the idea, but so much can and does go wrong that faith in boom is really misplaced. It's better to have it than not to have it, but it's far from a cure-all.

***This storage-capacity issue has long been an Achilles' heel of spill-cleanup plans in many regions, including Puget Sound, as Fred Felleman of Friends of the Earth has harped on for years.