Royal Dutch Shell could drill several exploratory oil wells into the waters off the north shore of Alaska this summer. The potential prize is huge, but so is the risk, should there be an oil spill in this pristine and remote region. And that risk is on everyone's mind since the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago.
Shell is now training hundreds of workers to confront oil in icy waters. But for now, the training is taking place in the calm, ice-free waters far to the south, near the port of Valdez.
A blue and white vessel, the Nanuq, pulls away from the dock and heads out into open water. This is just a few miles from where the Exxon Valdez came aground and spilled more than 10 million gallons of oil back in 1989.
Geoff Merrell, Shell's superintendent for emergency response in Alaska, is here to observe a program that will train about 200 spill-responders. The plan today is to deploy and retrieve 1,000 feet of oil containment boom.
Anyone who has seen an oil spill response knows that step one is to corral the oil, as best one can, inside a ring of rubbery material.
"In this way the oil would be prevented from spreading out over the water's surface in a large geographic area," Merrell says.
The boom is slowly reeled off of a large yellow spool. As it's dragged across the deck, the crew steps up with giant air hoses to inflate it, like an oversized air mattress.
As a 34-foot vessel off the stern pulls the inflated boom off the Nanuq, crew members take turns getting a feel for the air hoses. They deploy the first reel, containing 500 feet of this floating boom. They're paying attention to detail, not urgency.
"These are fairly new trainees," says Merrell. They've been in training for a week and a half so far. "In an actual situation, when these would be seasoned responders, this evolution would happen much more quickly."
How Good Is State-Of-The-Art Oil Cleanup?
This training is taking place in ideal conditions, with no ice in the water. Merrell says he does have experience deploying this boom in icy waters, and the crew will get training in that as well — presuming there's still floating ice in the Arctic Ocean once they get up there this summer.
It's still possible to encircle spilled oil around ice, Merrell says. But it is more challenging. Ice can cut the floating boom, and if chunks of ice get inside the boom, they can push the boom out of the way, "which would then release the oil that we had spent all that time trying to contain," he says.
Merrell watches as the crew pulls out a hacksaw and starts in on a cable attached to the end of the boom.
"I'm not happy with what I'm seeing here," he says. This is not standard procedure. But the improvised procedure resolves the hang-up, and the last of the boom drops off the stern of the ship.
It's hard to imagine, standing on this deck on a calm and sunny day, what a real response would look like in the typical high winds of the northern Beaufort or Chukchi Seas, especially late in the season as ice starts to move back in.
Shell's operation involves multiple vessels in the open ocean, other activity close to shore and contractors ready to hit the beaches should oil wash up. And the U.S. government has approved it. But just how good is the state-of-the-art in an actual oil-spill cleanup?
"It's pretty abysmal," says retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. Roger Rufe. "I don't think anybody's really proven they can clean up a spill very effectively in the ice."
Spill response is a last resort, of course. The hope is that Shell will never have a blowout, or if it does lose control of a well, that a device called a blowout preventer will actually work, unlike what happened at the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico. If that fails as well, Shell is bringing along a device that's designed to cap a runaway well.
"I think the chances of being able to get a cap on something more quickly than what happened in the Gulf is probably much better now than it was then," Rufe said at a meeting in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Pew Environment Group. "But once oil is in the water, it's a mess. And we've never proven anywhere in the world — let alone in the ice — that we're very good at picking up more than 3 or 5 or 10 percent of the oil once it's in the water."
Little On-The-Water Experience With Cleanup
Shell is also equipped to burn spilled oil on the sea surface, and it could use dispersants, which were used with much controversy at the BP blowout in the Gulf.
So an oil spill — and many of the possible response strategies — poses a risk to sea birds, whales, walruses and other wildlife that native villagers rely on for food. And there is very little on-the-water experience to demonstrate how well all of this would work.
"It's Alice-in-Wonderland kind of promises that are being made and accepted by the government," says Peter Van Tuyn, and environmental lawyer in Anchorage.
He says responding to a spill in the Arctic would be vastly more difficult than responding to one in the Gulf of Mexico.
"They have a miniscule number of boats compared to what was available in the Gulf of Mexico," he says, and in the Gulf, "they didn't have to deal with the extreme weather conditions that we've got in the Arctic." High winds are the norm, and sea ice is always a possible hazard, "and yet they [Shell] claim they can collect as much as 95 percent."
Merrell says the company has made no such claim. Instead, he says, the oil company's plan is to confront 95 percent of the oil out in the open water, before it comes ashore. That doesn't mean responders can collect what they encounter.
"Because the on-scene conditions can be so variable, it would be rather ridiculous of us to make any kind of performance guarantee," Merrell says.
Cleanup success depends on how thick the oil is, how well trained the crew is, and, of course, weather and ice conditions. Of course, he hopes that this $100 million, 300-foot-long Nanuq will never have to be used for anything more than drills and training.
And as for that training, it's clear these new recruits have a lot to learn before they become proficient.
They will have more time to practice. If Shell does get the final go-ahead to drill exploratory wells this summer, the company is permitted to start on July 15. But there's been unusually thick ice off the coast of Alaska this year, so drilling is likely to be delayed by a matter of weeks.