OFFSHORE DRILLING:

Shell vows spill-response plan will avert trouble in Alaska project

In the wake of the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Shell Oil Co. is trying to assure federal regulators its exploratory drilling this summer in Alaska will not pose the same environmental or safety problems.

The company's letter was sent in response to a May 6 request from the Minerals Management Service for information pertinent to its review of Shell's applications for drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Shell has received initial MMS permits but still needs final permits.

Shell President Marvin Odum told MMS in the letter written May 14 that the company's operations off Alaska are "much different" than those in the Gulf of Mexico, where the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig unleashed a well leak that has yet to be capped.

"Due to the difference in expected downhole pressure of the Macondo well versus our planned 2010 wells, our margin to safely operate in Alaska is much greater than that experienced by the Deepwater Horizon," Odum wrote. "Our biggest safety advantage is the water depth that will allow us to detect and respond to an event quickly and appropriately. Even in the highly unlikely event of Shell's drilling riser failing, the remaining drilling fluid below the seafloor would effectively stop any well flow in such a low-pressure system."

Odum outlined prevention and response plans and said that Shell would be ready to respond with oil spill response assets in one hour. He also described additional measures taken after the Gulf spill, including enhancements to well control and blowout preventers and the availability of remote operating vehicles and divers.

The company also has a prefabricated containment dome ready, similar to the one BP PLC tried to use to contain the Gulf leak without success. Shell said it would make adjustments to the device based on the Gulf experience.

Environmental groups blasted Shell's response.

"Basic questions remain about Shell's ability to respond to any significant-sized oil spill in Arctic waters," said Marilyn Heiman, U.S. Arctic program director for the Pew Environment Group. "MMS should suspend offshore lease operations in the Arctic until these issues are addressed. It would be irresponsible to move forward."

The group said a major spill would require bringing in boats, trained personnel, boom, skimmers, aircraft and dispersants from all over the country, and that Shell does not specify how or when these resources would be mobilized to the remote Arctic.

Likewise, Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, criticized the letter.

"Shell's President Marvin Odum claims that there is no comparing the Gulf situation to the Arctic because of differences in water depth," she said in a statement. "This couldn't be more wrong. A recent report shows that deepwater drilling, such as the type being done in the Gulf, was less risky in terms of a blowout than shallow water drilling, such as the type planned in the Arctic."

She added, "Remarkably, Shell's Odum now says that the Arctic's gale force winds, negative temperatures and sea-ice conditions actually make oil spill clean up easier. This is absurd."

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week denied requests from a coalition of environmental and Alaska Native groups that wanted the drilling halted. The groups had charged that the federal approval process of Shell Offshore Inc. and Shell Gulf of Mexico's proposed exploration plans was faulty.

The groups alleged that there were multiple deficiencies in the two environmental assessments prepared by the Minerals Management Service and in Shell's plans. But the three-judge panel said it had "carefully reviewed the thousands of pages of record and considered each of the alleged deficiencies in context" and decided they did not have merit (E&ENews PM, May 13).

Click here to read Shell's letter.

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