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Coast Guard prepares for an expanded role in Arctic

Dan JolingAssociated Press

The Coast Guard is ready for expanded activity in Arctic waters, including petroleum exploration and drilling, even though the nearest Coast Guard base is more than 750 miles southwest of the Bering Strait on Kodiak Island, Commandant Robert Papp told a U.S. Senate subcommittee Monday.

"For right now, we are well prepared, because like we always do traditionally, we have multimission assets that we can deploy, that are very capable, and that are sufficient for the level of human activity that's going on this summer and perhaps for the next three or four summers," Papp told the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, conducted the hearing in a hangar at Air Station Kodiak at the request of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. The subcommittee discussed what other resources the Coast Guard will need as melting summer sea ice opens more of the Arctic to cargo vessels, ecotourism and possibly commercial fishing. Landrieu said climate models indicate the Arctic Ocean could be free of summer ice after 2030.

"This is an extraordinary change on our planet and we must be ready for it," she said.

Landrieu asked whether the Coast Guard was prepared if something went terribly wrong with oil drilling, as happened in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago when the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded.

Shell Oil plans to drill exploratory wells this summer in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast and the Beaufort Sea off the state's north coast.

Landrieu said the gulf spill drew a response of 47,000 people and 7,000 vessels and she didn't see those kinds of assets at the Kodiak base if Shell's response to a spill was insufficient.

"The Coast Guard is it," she said.

Papp said he had faith in Shell's preparations.

"I have to say I'm impressed with the amount of effort, work and commitment of resources Shell has done," he said.

The Deepwater Horizon rig was by itself, Papp said. Shell will have 22 spill response vessels and a containment apparatus staged near its Arctic Ocean drilling sites.

"They will have everything in place, ready to go, an overabundance of caution in case something happens," he said.

Papp said comparing the Gulf of Mexico and Shell's proposed Alaska wells is a comparison of apples and oranges, to a certain extent. The Alaska wells will be drilled in water up to 150 feet deep, compared to 5,000 feet in the gulf, and pressure in the reservoirs being drilled will be far less.

"But even saying that, we're looking at the worst-case discharge possibility and I think Shell has well prepared for that," he said.

A barge being retrofitted as an oil spill containment vessel at a shipyard in Bellingham remains to be certified, he said. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said in an interview with the Daily News Monday that work is continuing around the clock on the vessel, the Arctic Challenger.

As of Saturday evening, more than 400 items still had to be checked off the to-do list for inspections and plan review, according to Coast Guard Cmdr. Chris O'Neil.

"These items relate to the design, construction and installation of safety, structural, mooring, electrical and machinery systems and include subsystems such as structural fire protection, structural plans and calculations, motions and mooring analysis, fire detection and electrical load analysis, and machinery relating to cooling, firefighting, foam, dirty oil and potable water systems," O'Neil said Monday in an email to the Daily News.

One test from last week measured incline stability, O'Neil said.

The data is still being analyzed but the results determine the barge's ability to withstand wind and waves.

"It's a thorough process, one that we are not going to rush through," Smith said. While he didn't immediately have an updated count of work items remaining, he said Shell is "well through that list."

The company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the containment barge alone, part of more than $4.5 billion for oil leases, ships and supplies to drill in Alaska's Arctic.

Federal regulators say they won't issue drilling permits for individual wells until the barge is complete.

Three Shell vessels, the Aiviq, the Fennica and the Tor Viking, headed to the Chukchi Sea late last week to prep for drilling, Smith said. Shell's arctic drilling rigs, the Kulluk and the Noble Discoverer, remain in Dutch Harbor.

Shell had hoped to start drilling in mid-July but delays attributed to lingering sea ice, the barge remodel and a needed air permit have pushed that back to mid-to late August at the earliest.

Associated Press