by Jeff Brady
December 24, 2010
was built especially for oil spill response cleanup in the Arctic
It can store 12,000
barrels of recovered oil.
The 300-foot vessel
is docked at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, for the winter.
Shell has spent more than $3.5 billion
on federal leases and preparations to drill in the Beaufort and
Company officials are trying to
demonstrate that it can not only drill responsibly, but also clean
up an oil spill if something goes wrong. But environmental groups
say it's not worth the risk.
The company has spent more than $3.5 billion on federal leases and
preparations to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. So far, that
investment hasn't returned a single dollar.
Lawsuits by environmental groups and Alaska native communities
forced the company to scale back drilling plans in the Chukchi. Now,
Shell is focused on an exploratory well in the Beaufort.
The company hopes to drill this summer
after the ice clears.
How It Would
Respond To A Spill
Shell officials hope to demonstrate that the company is prepared to
drill responsibly and it's ready to clean up an oil spill if
something goes wrong.
Near the end of the Aleutian Island chain is Dutch Harbor and the
city of Unalaska.
Shell is storing equipment there over the winter,
including the 300-foot cleanup vessel Nanuq.
"She's a wonderful vessel," says
Geoff Merrell, the Alaska region emergency response coordinator
The Nanuq can store 12,000 barrels of
recovered oil and there are tools on board to collect crude from
water. Merrell points to one that looks like a very thick feather
"[It's] what we call a fox-tail
skimmer and it's connected to a roller and a squeegee system,"
he says. "They're very effective at removing pockets of oil in
and amongst ice flows."
There's also a huge roll of containment
boom and another oil skimmer nearby. Merrell says the Nanuq could
respond to a spill within an hour. And if it became necessary to
drill a relief well, a second drilling rig would be standing by to
Shell has a good safety record, but the Deepwater Horizon memory is
still fresh, and environmental groups oppose the company's drilling
"Our position is that right now we
are not ready to drill in the Arctic Ocean," says Lois Epstein,
Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society.
Epstein says more scientific research
needs to be done in the Arctic before companies should be allowed to
"We don't even know what animals are
in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in total, let alone how they
interact and what they eat and at what times of year," says
Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for Oceana.
While 2,700 scientists around the world
recently finished a decade-long Census of Marine Life, researchers
admit there's still much to be learned about the Arctic Ocean.
When it came to oil and gas drilling, environmental groups felt
George W. Bush's administration. The
House appears to take their concerns more seriously, especially in
the wake of the
Deepwater Horizon accident.
With indications that this
administration is slowing down what had been an aggressive federal
leasing program, environmental groups are asking big questions about
the future of offshore drilling in Alaska.
"You might be able to run out and
drill a well, or two wells, or three wells without having what
happened in the Gulf of Mexico happen in the Arctic," LeVine
"But is that a risk that you want to
"We really need to decide, as a country, how important it is to
get this oil," Epstein says. "We are not in an emergency
situation where if we don't get this oil all of a sudden
factories are going to have to shut down."
One Well Versus
Hundreds Of Wells
Much of the concern from environmental groups appears to be less
about the one well Shell wants to drill this summer, and more about
what could happen if the company finds oil.
If a production program were launched,
that could mean hundreds of wells drilled in an area that is now
"Any kind of a development would
require a full-blown environmental impact statement," says Pete
Slaiby, vice president of Shell Alaska. "It would be one of the
most significant environmental impact statements that people
have contemplated, probably, in North America."
Slaiby says Shell has plenty of
experience working in the Arctic.
The company started drilling in the
Beaufort and the Chukchi seas in the 1960s. And he says the industry
learned important lessons from the Deepwater Horizon accident about
containing well blowouts and spills that could be applied to work in
While the exploratory well Shell wants to drill in the Beaufort next
summer is similar to BP's Macondo well, Slaiby says, there are key
"These wells have very, very
different risk profiles," he says. "They're in shallow water
pressure -- a third of what we see in deep-water Gulf of
And you can be sure, Slaiby says, the
first well drilled is going to be under a lot of scrutiny.
That's a point echoed by Michael
Bromwich, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management,
Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), the country's top offshore
"We don't have a lot of activity in
the Arctic," Bromwich says. "And so we are able to, even with
limited manpower, make sure that we will be providing 24/7
regulatory oversight over the drilling of this well if we make
the decision to approve the application."
Shell hopes to hear soon whether BOEMRE
will approve its request for a drilling permit. The company says it
needs time to prepare if it's going to drill this summer, though it
hasn't set a hard deadline.
Bromwich says his agency feels no pressure to conduct its work
faster in order to meet Shell's timeline.
"We understand that they would like
to hear as soon as possible," Bromwich says. "We will try to let
them know as soon as possible but our 'as soon as possible' is
as soon as we've done the work that needs to be done."
Some of the native communities on the North Slope who hunt whales
for food also oppose Shell's offshore drilling plan.
"In the past, when we've had a lot
of activity, our whales were skittish," says Dora Leavitt from
the village of Nuiqsut. "Our whalers were having to go 30 miles
until they spotted just one whale."
That can be dangerous in the 20-foot
boats Leavitt says are used for hunting.
This issue is especially important for
Leavitt because her 14-year-old son is among those going out in the
boats to learn how to hunt whales.
"Now my 10-year-old, it's time for
him to go and learn," says Leavitt. "I'm concerned for them
because they're going to be going out with their dad and I want
them to be safe."
Shell says it is working to address
concerns of North Slope residents and the company has created
programs to boost local economies.
Recently, Shell flew Leavitt and other North Slope leaders down to
Dutch Harbor to see the company's equipment. As they were leaving
for the bumpy plane ride back home, several of the visitors said
they still oppose offshore drilling near their communities.
But they hope the increased drilling
will lead to good-paying jobs for their residents.