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Shell needs to step up and pay for the Kulluk mess

Denise Krepp
Loren Holmes photo

The Kulluk grounding near Kodiak demonstrates yet again that there are not enough private and government resources in Alaska to respond to a significant oil spill. The Obama administration should not allow Royal Dutch Shell to continue drilling operations nor approve any more drilling requests until these resources are put into place. The new resources should be paid for by the companies conducting the drilling operations, not the American taxpayer.

Last October, Pete Slaiby, the vice president for Shell Alaska told the Senate Commerce Committee that Shell had assembled a 100 percent Shell-dedicated oil spill response capability in preparation for the very unlikely event of an oil spill or leak. The Kulluk grounding didn't result in an oil leak. What it did, however, demonstrate was that neither Shell nor the U.S. Coast Guard has enough resources in Alaska to respond to a simple grounding. The Coast Guard reported that vessels requested from Seattle and the Department of Defense provided additional air support. Neither which should have had to occur if a 100 percent response capability had been in place.

Mr. Slaiby also expressed frustration about the amount of time it takes for the government to make decisions last fall. This failure along with others, according to Mr. Slaiby, denies lessees of the benefit of their bargain. The bargain did not include damaging Alaska's environment. The Secretary of Interior should require Royal Dutch Shell to amend its current lease to require additional resources to cover all contingencies. The secretary should place the same burden on all other potential lessees.

Royal Dutch Shell decided to tow the Kulluk to Seattle in December for seasonal maintenance issues. Towing vessels in Alaska waters in December is extremely dangerous. Sea swells on the day of the grounding were 25-35 feet, with wind gusts of up to 65 mph. To avoid these dangerous conditions, oil companies should be required in their Interior Department leases to establish sufficient dry-docking capacity in Alaska year-round to fix vessels and drilling barges that have been damaged. A vessel that is leaking oil or otherwise damaged can't be towed to Seattle to be fixed. The tow would take weeks in the best of weather and the environmental damage created by the continuing leak or possible collapse of the vessel while at sea would be significant.

The Coast Guard should not approve safety and security plans submitted by oil companies for drilling operations until additional Coast Guard response vessels and personnel have been stationed in Alaska. The Coast Guard does not currently have enough resources in Alaska to respond to a simple grounding and will need more to respond to a major oil spill. Royal Dutch Shell paid the Interior Department $2.2 billion to lease rights to offshore oil in Alaska's Arctic. The administration should use the funds gained from the Interior lease agreements to pay for these additional Coast Guard vessels.

Lastly, the Coast Guard should require Royal Dutch Shell to compensate the U.S. government, the state of Alaska, and local and tribal government officials for the resources and personnel that have been used to respond to the Kulluk grounding. Over 730 personnel have been involved in response and recovery efforts in the past week. If Royal Dutch Shell wants to operate in Alaska and be the best neighbor possible, then it should be required to pay for all expenses associated with its operation.

Denise Krepp is an Arctic expert. She previously served as chief counsel at the U.S. Maritime Administration and Senior Counsel on the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee.

The views expressed above are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.