As national attention increasingly focuses on Shell's exploratory drilling program in the Arctic, its top Alaska officials held a briefing for Sen. Lisa Murkowski and local media Friday where they stressed their efforts at oil spill prevention and recovery.
For the past five years, Shell has been trying to organize a summer of drilling on offshore federal leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas where it believes there are commercially viable oil deposits.
But the company has been unable to acquire all the permits it needs. BP's disastrous blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 forced Shell to rethink its plans, even though its initial drilling would be in much shallower water and to far shallower depths than were attempted by the Deepwater Horizon drill ship at BP's Macondo well.
"The eyes of this state and I think the eyes of the country are on what Shell is proposing for offshore exploration and production," Murkowski said. "Whether Shell likes it or not, you're in the headlights."
Peter Slaiby, Shell Alaska vice president and the principal spokesman for its Arctic operation, said the company understands that it had to respond to the events in the Gulf.
"We really matured what was a pretty powerful program pre-Macondo into what is truly a world-class program after Macondo," Slaiby said.
Shell's drilling plan has been opposed by North Slope residents and environmental organizations who say too little is known about how spilled crude would interact with sea ice and cold ocean water. They assert that Shell hasn't done enough to allay their concerns.
Shell, however, says it's ready to go, with two drilling rigs in Alaska and Canada and a modest flotilla of support vessels.
Murkowski, the ranking Republican senator on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was critical of the slow pace of permitting, in particular of an air quality permit long delayed by the Environmental Protection Agency. At the same time, she said, regulators must continue to assure the public that they are applying a keen eye to oil operations.
During the unusual 90-minute, three-way briefing and news conference -- the senator and reporters first listened to the Shell officials, then Murkowski turned around and, with Slaiby, took questions -- several reporters asked whether Murkowski was attempting to coordinate a campaign with Shell. She said no -- she wanted the Alaska media to get the same Shell briefing she got and was happy that Shell was willing to accommodate everyone.
"I need to have these answers for myself so that I can either be an advocate or a critic," Murkowski said. "Alaskans have a right to know what the proposals are. ... I want Alaskans to be advocates for this project if they too believe that Shell can develop responsibly and safely. If Shell can't stand up here and answer the questions that I have, and that you have as reporters, or that Alaskans have, then we should be worried about that."