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Will the Gulf Accident Stymie Plans to Drill in Alaska?

An offshore oil rig in Cook Inlet, Alaska Paul Souders / Getty Images

By Bryan Walsh Wednesday, May. 12, 2010

Desperate times call for desperate measures — an apt characterization of energy giant BP’s ongoing, checkered response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Last weekend, the company’s plan to lower a massive dome over the leaks 5,000 ft. below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico hit a serious snag, when hydrates — slushy ice crystals that occur when gas mixes with water — formed at the top of the dome, blocking any captured oil from being channeled to the surface. (See pictures of the oil spill.)

With that precarious maneuver on hold for now, the company has moved onto other long-shot strategies. The company is working on a “junk shot,” for instance, an attempt to plug the leaks with rubbish, including shredded rubber and golf balls, as well as a stopper. On Monday, a robot-controlled submarine shot chemical dispersant directly at the leak on the sea floor in an attempt to break up the crude before it made it to the surface. Another plan is to try to stop the leak with a much smaller containment dome, called a top hat.

“There’s a lot of techniques available to us,” Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, said on the Today show Monday morning. “The challenge with all of them is … they haven’t been done in 5,000 feet of water.” (Read “Battling the Oil Spill on Two Precarious Fronts.”)

BP’s continued failure to stop the leak has everyone concerned, including President Barack Obama, who on Tuesday dispatched Energy Secretary Steven Chu to meet with scientists and engineers at BP’s Houston command center and help them manage the spill. “The President is deeply frustrated that we have not plugged this leak,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Tuesday, and Chu, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist, will “ensure that we’re comfortable with the pace of [BP’s] response.”

While BP struggles to stem the flow of oil — estimated to be at least 5,000 barrels (or 210,000 gallons) a day, if not more — and responders on the Gulf coastline prepare as the first tendrils of oil hit the shores, some of the national attention is shifting northward to Alaska, the next frontier of offshore drilling. (Watch TIME’s video “Oil Spill Anxiety on the Bayou.”)

The energy company Shell has an audacious plan to drill for oil and natural gas in the freezing cold Arctic waters off the state’s northwest coast. Shell had planned to begin exploratory drilling this July in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, where the untouched waters could hold billions of barrels of oil, and the company says it has already spent more than $3 billion preparing for the project. But environmentalists have seized upon BP’s catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a reason to slow down Shell’s drilling in Alaska. Last week a number of green groups sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar urging him to reconsider offshore drilling in that state, citing the even greater safety challenges of the Arctic environment. “If you think it’s tough to clean up an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s nothing compared to Alaska,” says Tom Dillon, the senior vice president of field programs for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). (Comment on this story.)

Certainly, drilling in Arctic waters will present major new challenges to oil companies. While the Gulf is in the heart of the U.S. oil infrastructure, surrounded by easily accessible equipment and expertise that could be quickly tapped in the event of an accident — as we’ve seen already — the Alaskan Arctic is incredibly isolated and its waters prone to rough storms. If something went wrong there, any new equipment for cleanup — from chemical dispersants to shoreline boom — would need to be carried in by boat, which could take weeks. And in the cold Beaufort and Chukchi seas, which are under ice for about half the year, oil would take much longer to break apart and evaporate than in the relatively warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. As one WWF staffer has put it, an oil spill occurring in the Gulf is like a heart attack happening in a hospital — you have everything you need to be treated. A spill in the Arctic is like having a heart attack on the North Pole — you’re on your own.

To carry out its exploratory drilling in Alaska, Shell still needs additional permits from the Interior Department. The status of the project is unclear — the White House has put new drilling on hold while the Interior Department investigates what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon. (The report is due May 28.) On May 6, the head of the Mineral Management Service (MMS), the Interior Department agency that has come under fire for what critics call overly lax regulation of offshore drilling, sent a letter to Shell requesting information on additional safety measures the company will take in Alaska in light of the Deepwater Horizon accident.

Shell has said it will be drilling in far shallower waters off Alaska — 150 ft. deep at most, instead of the 5,000-ft.-deep well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon — and that shallower wells will be under less pressure. The company said it will also have a response ship on hand in case anything goes wrong.

But environmentalists are skeptical, and raise concerns that the MMS has done far too little to regulate new offshore drilling projects. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) — a green group with expertise in the courtrooms — reviewed 27 offshore programs that had been approved by MMS since April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and found that environmental reviews had been waived in 26 of them. The agency has also come under fire previously for what critics saw as a scandalous relationship with the industry it was meant to oversee — a 2008 report from the Interior Department’s inspector general charged that some MMS employees had taken gifts, used drugs and even engaged in sexual relationships with energy-industry insiders. (The chapter detailing these transgressions was called, appropriately, “A Culture of Ethical Failures.”)

On Tuesday, Interior Secretary Salazar took steps toward addressing those criticisms, announcing that he planned to split the MMS into two branches: one to issue leases for drilling and collect royalties from work on federal territory, and the other to inspect oil rigs and enforce safety. He also asked the National Academy of Engineering to carry out an independent study of the causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and said that the Administration would propose extending the review period for offshore drilling to as much as 90 days if needed. “The job of ensuring energy companies are following the law and protecting the safety of their workers and the environment is a big one, and should be independent from other missions of the agency,” Salazar said in a press conference. (See the top 10 environmental disasters.)

Environmentalists gave Salazar’s announcement a wary welcome, and noted that his decisions on Alaska will show just where the Administration stands on offshore drilling. “Fixing the agency for the future doesn’t change what happened in the past,” said Kristin Miller, government-affairs director for the Alaska Wilderness League, who called on Salazar to halt exploratory drilling in the state. As the country debates whether to extend drilling to the Last Frontier — an option that will be risky even in the best conditions — the least we should do is make sure the watchmen are watching.

“The job of ensuring energy companies are following the law and protecting the safety of their workers and the environment is a big one, and should be independent from other missions of the agency,” Salazar said. “We will responsibly and thoughtfully move to establish independence and separation for this critical mission so that the American people know they have a strong and independent organization holding energy companies accountable and in compliance with the law of the land.”

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