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Can anyone clean up an Arctic oil spill?

Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard photo

Environmental groups earlier this week challenged oil companies to prove they can clean up an oil spill in the Arctic. The challenge is all part of a ramped-up public relations and political effort by a coalition of more than a dozen national conservation organizations to pressure the Obama administration into rejecting industry permit applications for work in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas next summer.

So it's unlikely Shell Oil and the other companies will pick up that particular gantlet -- and how would they, really. Short of dumping some oil out there and mopping it up or burning it off how does one prove they can clean up a spill?

Michael Levine, senior attorney with Oceana, says the coalition will settle for the White House admitting it can't be done -- and denying the permits.

"Let's be realistic about it," Levine says. "We think the exploration plan and the spill response plan should not be approved. And at a minimum the public should be provided a realistic view of what Shell is proposing to do and how likely it is to work."

And on Wednesday, the Coast Guard acknowledged it had no chance of cleaning up an Arctic spill if an industry-mounted response were to fail.

According to a Platt's news report, Adm. Robert Papp, the Coast Guard's top official, told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that an Arctic spill would leave it in the lurch when it came to deploying the kinds of manpower and equipment it had readily on hand in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year.

If a major spill were to happen off the Alaska coast, "we'd have nothing," Papp told the committee. "We're starting from ground zero today." 

Alaska's congressional delegation has been trying to convince their congressional colleagues to put more money into Coast Guard operations in Alaska, including springing for more icebreakers and more facilities along the Arctic Coast including a deepwater port. The nearest Coast Guard base is 1,000 miles away in Kodiak.

But so far no action on any of that. And it seems unlikely, given that the federal government is trying to whack $4 trillion from it's budget in an effort to save the country from economic catastrophe.

And besides, Shell Alaska vice president Pete Slaiby has often said it's not the Coast Guard's job to clean up a spill -- it's the company that spills the oil's problem.

Shell has put together an unprecedented spill response and cleanup plan for the Beaufort and Chukchi operations, including having cleanup crew and gear close enough to the drilling site that it could all be deployed in less than an hour. The company is engineering a new system that could be dropped in the water to cap a blowout and pump the oil back to the surface to a containment barge.

Slaiby also testified before the Senate committee on Wednesday, according to Platt's, reiterating the company's commitment to state-of-the-art technology and declaring: "Shell would not be working in the Arctic had we believed there was something, an event we could not control."

The conservation groups, of course, insist that whatever Shell says it can do is simply not good enough. Levine points out that the technology has never been tested and that, frankly, there is nothing that will clean up oil in rough seas and icy conditions.

Oceana went so far as to submit public records requests to state and federal agencies for reports and documentation of in-the-water demonstrations and past cleanup spill drills. The federal agencies didn't provide any records, the group said.

The state handed over reports and a video from 2000 -- the most recent drill for which the state has documentation, Oceana said.

The video, edited for this clip by Oceana, shows how ineffective boom can be, even in calm seas, the group said.

The debate over whether spilled oil can be boomed, burned or otherwise disposed of without damaging the Arctic environment and its inhabitants likely will go on until there's actually a spill. Which would mean there would be drilling and development going on.

The next step in that process should come soon, perhaps next week. The federal government is expected to make a decision on whether to approve Shell's exploration permit for the Beaufort Sea by Aug. 5.

Opponents will then have 60 days to file their next lawsuit.

Contact Patti Epler at patt(at)alaskadispatch.com.