Plans by Royal Dutch Shell to begin exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer are drawing increased scrutiny in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Interior Department officials -- under pressure from native and environmental groups to halt the activity -- say their final drilling permits will be contingent on new safety reviews.
Last fall, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved Shell's plans to drill five exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas after
Meanwhile, a coalition of 14 environmental groups joined by the native village of Point Hope, Alaska, sent a letter to Mr. Salazar on May 5 asking him to reconsider Shell's approval on grounds that the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency that regulates offshore drilling, didn't "analyze or disclose the effects of a large oil spill" from the exploratory drilling when the MMS approved it.
On May 3, the Northwest Arctic Borough -- populated mostly by Alaskan native people -- sent a letter to the MMS urging that Shell's plans be suspended or revoked until the cause of the April 20 spill can be determined.
A key concern among all the groups: that a giant spill in the Arctic Ocean would devastate the fragile environment, and wreak havoc on the culture and economy of native villages that depend on subsistence hunting of marine creatures like the bowhead whale. "The ocean is our garden," said Earl Kingik, a tribal elder in the Inupiat community of Point Hope. "If any oil spills in our garden, the currents would blow it to us."
Arctic drilling in Alaska has been mostly confined to coastal land areas, but both the industry and state are pushing to open new fields
Shell officials say they have no plans to delay their drilling, but acknowledge that the Gulf spill didn't help the Anglo-Dutch company's public-relations efforts. "Yeah, I woke up that day [of the spill] and said, 'Yes, this truly will impact the way people look at this industry," said Pete Slaiby, a Shell vice president in Anchorage.
As part of the federal safety review, MMS Director Elizabeth Birnbaum on May 6 sent a letter to Shell officials asking for an accounting of any additional safety procedures that the company is proposing in light of the Gulf spill. That disaster, she wrote to Shell Oil Co. President Marvin Odum, "highlights the importance of taking every step necessary to ensure the safety of all offshore drilling operations."
But Shell officials said the Arctic drilling poses less of a threat of a disastrous spill than the Gulf, in part because of differences in
One difference, Mr. Slaiby said, is that the BP well at 5,000 feet deep on the Gulf floor was under far greater pressure than Shell's
Shell officials also say they will have the protective barriers known as boom, ice cutters and equipment in place to respond quickly to any spill. But critics question the effectiveness of a response given the remoteness of the Arctic, and say it would be hard to contain any oil during the spring season when the icepack moves a great deal.
"It would be impossible to control it," said Richard Steiner, a former marine-biology professor at the University of Alaska and a longtime industry critic. "That's why Obama should take this off the table."
Shell officials say they could clean oil in any ice condition, and point to an industry-commissioned study completed in 2009 that
Even more important than spill response, though, is prevention, Shell officials say. "The idea is, we don't want a spill," Mr. Slaiby said.
Copyright (c) 2010 The Wall Street Journal
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