Thursday, December 5, 2013
The Associated Press
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Shell Oil cleared one of the last remaining hurdles to Arctic offshore drilling Friday as the federal government said it has approved the company's spill response plan for the Chukchi Sea.
The 53,000-ton Leiv Eiriksson oil rig near Greenland.
Photo courtesy of The Guardian
Environmentalists and Alaska Natives living along the Arctic Coast have bitterly opposed drilling. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a prepared statement that the federal government was taking a cautious approach.
"In the Arctic frontier, cautious exploration — under the strongest oversight, safety requirements, and emergency response plans ever established — can help us expand our understanding of the area and its resources, and support our goal of continuing to increase safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production," Salazar said.
The federal government estimates there are 26.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Arctic Ocean's outer continental shelf reserves. The total includes both the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska's northwest coast, and the Beaufort Sea off the state's north coast.
Shell Oil Co., the Houston-based arm of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, hopes to drill up to three wells in the Chukchi during the short open water season this summer and two wells in the Beaufort.
Salazar said Shell must still obtain approval from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which must inspect and approve equipment that has been designed for spill response. That equipment includes Shell's capping stack, a device that could be lowered onto a well after a blowout.
Rebecca Noblin, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity in Anchorage, said Shell's cleanup plan relies on technology such as the capping stack that has not even been built, much less tested.
"The reality is, we don't know how to deal with an oil spill in the Arctic," she said.
Chris Krenz of Oceana, an environmental group that focuses on oceans, applauded the decision to test Shell's response equipment but questioned why officials would sign off on the spill prevention plan before the tests.
"It's really ludicrous to approve Shell's spill plan before those in-water tests are done," Krenz said.
The decision presumes the next test will succeed, but the last public test of cleaning a spill in ice-filled waters was in 2000 and was a failure, Krenz said. Shell's spill response plan claims it can clean up nearly all oil spilled, even though the recovery from BP PLC's Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, a location with far more infrastructure, was about 10 percent.
"It's crazy," Krenz said. "It's just not going to be possible. It seems like the Obama administration had joined Shell in oil response dreamland."
Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby said approval of the oil spill response plan is a major milestone. The decision, he said, validates the huge amount of time, technology and resources the company has dedicated to assembling an Arctic oil spill response fleet.
The company spent $2.1 billion on leases in the Chukchi Sea at a 2008 lease sale that was challenged by environmental groups, which claimed federal regulators did not follow environmental law before putting leases up for bid. The sale remains under court review.
Salazar said the approval of Shell's plan was guided by the latest science, new safety standards and lessons learned from Deepwater Horizon.
Besides the capping stack, Shell had to show the capability to capture and collect oil from the stack and to have a second drilling ship stationed nearby that was capable of drilling a relief well that could kill a well blowout.
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