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A Coast Guard Challenge: Arctic Drilling

October 26, 2011, 6:15 pm


As I noted in my article in Wednesday’s paper, Shell Oil has received several preliminary permits to begin drilling exploratory wells off the Arctic coast of Alaska next summer even as foes of drilling there argue that the severe conditions — ice, darkness, brutal storms — will make it impossible to properly respond to a spill or other problem.

Opponents are also challenging Shell’s plans for other reasons, including the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from all of the new work and vessel traffic. Some Native Alaskan groups have joined environmental groups in the fight.

But the potential for offshore work also has another group concerned: the United States Coast Guard. The closest Coast Guard base to the Arctic is in Kodiak, Ak., more than 1,000 miles to the south.

In the event of an emergency – say a Shell supply vessel becomes stranded and its crew needs to be airlifted to safety, to say nothing of a spill – the Coast Guard, not just Shell, could be called upon to respond.

“I can’t tell you today what I’ll put up there, because I haven’t received a good figure of how many ships, assets and how much money I’m going to get,” said Capt. Adam Shaw, the chief of prevention for the Coast Guard in Alaska.

Captain Shaw said he is looking into leasing an airplane hangar in the region’s biggest city, Barrow, for the summer season, when Shell could be drilling.

He said he would prefer to stock it with three rescue aircraft, including a C-130. Without a hangar in Barrow, a C-130 flying from Kodiak could take three to four hours to get to the Arctic, where it could drop rafts and other emergency supplies. Smaller planes and helicopters could take much longer.

Captain Shaw said the Coast Guard was also looking into potential lodging, which is limited in Barrow. The city’s population is about 4,000.

“We are trying to be there ahead of the issue, but there’s no infrastructure,” Captain Shaw said. “We have to develop the infrastructure so we can respond.”

“We’re getting some significant scrutiny from the commandant himself,” he said, referring to Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr., who heads the agency. “That’s something daily we’re getting pushed on is, ‘Are we ready?’”

“Hopefully nothing happens,” he said. “If something does, hopefully Shell takes care of it. But if it doesn’t, we’ve got to jump in there.”

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