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Oil spill commission examines future of Arctic drilling

Erika Bolstad

WASHINGTON -- The presidential commission that's looking at the Gulf of Mexico oil spill zeroed in Thursday on the future of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, and specifically on how to address possible spills.

The panel did not reach any conclusions on the Arctic on Thursday, as part of a daylong meeting in which it also suggested the oil and gas industry set up a safety institute similar to what the nuclear industry established after 1979's Three Mile Island accident.

But the panel agreed that any future oil and gas development in the Arctic needs to be underscored by the realization it's "rich and bountiful in many respects," said panelist Frances Beinecke, but also "very fragile and harsh in some respects."

The commission's staff recommended that before any offshore drilling proceeds in Arctic waters that oil companies fully demonstrate their ability to recover oil in the event of a spill or well blowout.

It "sounds pretty impressive on paper," said commission staffer Kate Clark, referring to Shell's plans for drilling an exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea. "But we'd like to see that demonstrated."

And nearly everyone called for more research in the Arctic. The U.S. Geological Survey is in the midst of a study, set to be released next spring, of what sort of research gaps and scientific work is needed in the Arctic before proceeding with further exploration. That study will assess resources, risks and environmental sensitivities in the region.

However, the need for more research shouldn't serve as a de facto moratorium on Arctic development, said William Reilly, the EPA administrator in President George H.W. Bush's administration and the co-chair of the commission with former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida. Reilly preached what he called a "precautionary principle," which he said means you don't halt activity altogether. But "you do it in a certain way, with special concern and studies," he said.

"It doesn't mean you cease operations until we're 100 percent sure of a satisfactory conclusion," Reilly said.

The commission's staff noted that other Arctic nations are addressing similar challenges as they ponder offshore drilling in their waters. Norway, Canada and Russia have leased some Arctic waters for offshore development, and while Norway has natural gas production in place, none has any active offshore development yet.

Both Canada and Norway are waiting on the findings from the Deepwater Horizon investigations before they proceed any further, the staff said. That's an additional sign that as the U.S. looks to develop offshore resources in the Arctic, it also should consider pressing for international safety standards in the region, said the panel's Graham, a Democrat.

The same conversations about "the fear of the unknown" are taking place in Canada, Russia and Norway, said panelist Fran Ulmer, a Democrat, a former Alaska lieutenant governor.

"Funding the Coast Guard, funding NOAA, the other agencies, is absolutely essential for all of the various potential human uses of the Arctic as well as for the well-being of the ecosystem," she said.

She also suggested that when the commission releases its findings, it recommend that both the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico establish regional citizens' advisory councils, such as the one established in Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The independent groups are funded by the industry but serve as independent watchdog on behalf of oil patch communities.

"I'd like to see the commission recommend citizens advisory councils for both the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico," she said. "It's an important piece," she said, calling them "something where we could make a recommendation that would have long-lasting effect."


By ERIKA BOLSTAD
ebolstad@adn.com