Shell's Arctic plans raise spill-response questions

Bill White

Cleaning up oil spills in Arctic waters off Alaska's coast is fraught with risks and unknowns, the staff of a national commission on offshore drilling said in a new report.

The challenges include:

• Extreme weather.

• Finding oil trapped under an ice sheet.

• Containing and cleaning spilled oil in broken ice.

• Corralling oil within fire-proof boom before burning it.

• Rapidly responding to a spill in a remote area that lacks nearby ports, airports and Coast Guard presence.

• Response plans that rely on chemical dispersants whose true effectiveness in icy waters, heavy winds and weathered oil is insufficiently understood.

These are draft conclusions of the national oil spill commission's staff. President Obama charged the commission with studying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and federal offshore drilling policies. The commissioners hope to have their own report ready in a few months.

The 22-page draft report gives credit to the Arctic spill-response plans -- called C-Plans -- of Shell Oil, which wants to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska's northern coast.

"Shell's exploratory drilling C-Plan is currently the only formal industry proposal for contingency planning and oil spill response in the Arctic. While Shell's plan acknowledges many of the challenges of spill response in the Arctic, questions remain as to whether its solutions to those challenges are realistic," the report said.

Shell's plan goes beyond what is required, the report said. But as the only plan that exists, officials can't compare Shell's ideas with those of oil companies that want to explore Arctic waters. The staff also notes that some environmentalists say the government's spill-response standards are inadequate for a worst-case spill.

The report notes differences in responding to spills in the Beaufort Sea versus spills in the Chukchi. Chukchi wells, off the northwest coast, would be much farther from shore and the spill-response machinery in place for oil fields already producing in the Beaufort.