From the hallways of Congress to Alaska's northern shores, the hype over offshore oil development in the U.S. Arctic continues as Royal Dutch Shell awaits federal permission to launch the first exploratory drilling there in more than a decade.
Shell's summer plans to tap five exploratory wells remain delayed as the EPA, the U.S. Coast Guard and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar review permits and other aspects of the project.
On Wednesday, Dow Jones cited unnamed sources to report that Shell officials approached the Obama administration about extending the company's summer drilling window in the Arctic, a period that shrinks daily in part because sea ice has been unusually slow to leave the region.
Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said in an email Wednesday that Shell officials made no such request.
Meantime, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced legislation Wednesday to expand offshore oil leasing across the U.S. over the next five years, and the House voted to do the same in a Republican-led vote. Murkowski, who touted her bill as heavy on bipartisan support, said it would allow 24 lease sales in federal waters in the 2012-2017 plan. Included would be Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas, where Shell hopes to sink bits early next month. Murkowski's bill would double the 12 lease sales proposed by President Obama's five-year plan, her office said.
But as the drumbeat increases for more offshore oil development in Alaska, new questions are also emerging about whether state regulators are prepared for an oil spill off the Arctic coastline.
A study is under way to catalogue current response equipment and what might be needed should Shell or another company spill oil in the icy waters and struggle to clean it up.
Is the state behind in its effort, given that Shell might be drilling pretty soon?
"We're moving as fast as we can," said Gary Folley, head of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's prevention and emergence response program.
Shell is responsible for cleaning up any mishap, but if a spill were large enough or Shell's response ran into trouble, the state and the federal government might have to jump in and help.
Alaska, which owns a couple of small spill-response boats and other equipment, has a huge stake in any response because its shorelines could be jeopardized by a spill. State regulators have worked closely with Shell to keep abreast of its response plans, including participating with the oil giant in two indoor, table-top response drills this spring.
In addition, state environmental regulators launched an effort eight months ago to determine how much manpower and equipment is needed on the North Slope and in Northwest Alaska to stage a "full-scale response in near-shore waters to protect Alaska shores," Folley said.
The project, dubbed "Nearshore Operations Response Strategy," will also recommend response strategies for certain areas, such as the best place to lay boom to protect creeks or rivers.
Contributing to the plan are regulators with the U.S. Coast Guard, local communities and tribes, Folley said. Also involved are industry-funded response cooperatives such as Alaska Clean Seas, created to protect the North Slope. Shell's a member of that group, which holds response drills out of Prudhoe Bay, the nation's largest oil field, and offers cleanup training to locals in Arctic villages.
The project shouldn't be seen as a sign that Shell hasn't done enough to prevent and prepare for a spill, said Folley.
Federal regulators have given Shell's oil-spill response plans a thumbs-up, and Shell officials have said they're confident there will be no spill. If there is, Shell has built or hired multiple response vessels big and small to mop up a release at the wellhead in federal waters or near Alaska's coast. Also, Shell has pre-staged spill-response equipment in the Inupiat village of Wainwright, about 70 miles southeast of Shell's Chukchi Sea prospect, and at Prudhoe Bay, about 70 miles southwest of Shell's Beaufort Sea prospect.
But is that enough to keep Alaska coastlines safe?
"I don't know if it's enough to protect our shorelines," Folley said. "That's why we're going through this exercise now."
That, and other possible developments in the Arctic. Other oil companies are watching Shell closely and moving forward with their own drilling plans in the region, including ConocoPhillips and Norwegian-owned Statoil.
Part of the study includes cataloguing current response equipment. Environmental consultant Nuka Research of Seldovia should produce a report by Nov. 15. Eventually, the state hopes to develop similar plans statewide.
"The focus now is on the Arctic because of the proposed development there," but other areas also need more response resources, including the Aleutian Islands, where the biggest spills have occurred since the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill, thanks to freighters that ran aground, Folley said.
As a model, the project is looking to Prince William Sound, where massive oil tankers meet the trans-Alaska pipeline to haul more than 10 percent of domestic oil production to the Lower 48. In the sound, a burst of congressional action following the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 produced what many say is the world's most sophisticated prevention and response effort.
Oil companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. fund an ever-present force of permanent responders and contractors, as well as scores of fishermen paid to train. In regular drills on the water, dozens of fishing and industry boats work together to stretch out oil-collecting booms and work skimmers that can suck oil into numerous barges.
The system in Prince William Sound was created after the fact, following the Exxon Valdez disaster hammered the region's fisheries, killed thousands of animals and left oil that still lurks beneath shores today. This time around, with the Arctic still undeveloped, the state has a chance to think ahead.
"Our near-shore capabilities are robust in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet, but we don't have that same capability throughout the state," Folley said.
Will the state's Arctic plan rely on local whaling crews as its "vessels of opportunity?" Like the fishing fleet in Prince William Sound, whalers would passionately protect their coasts, too. And there's dozens of crews in several villages, including 35 in Barrow alone.
Too early to say, Folley said.
How about funding? Will the state pluck cash from its ample oil-funded savings to buy boats, skimmers and other equipment that might be pre-positioned in places such as the small coastal village of Kaktovik in northeast Alaska?
That village is the closest one to Shell's Beaufort Sea prospect -- about 70 miles to the southeast -- but Shell hasn't placed an equipment yard in Kaktovik as it has in Wainwright. Shell's response plans say equipment at Prudhoe Bay and its sea-based assets will be capable of getting ahead of and stopping a spill from reaching Kaktovik or other coastal areas.
Or will state regulators ask for money from the feds-- which stands to haul in billions of dollars a year in production royalties if the Arctic offshore lives up to promise? Or how about asking industry to foot the bill, like it does in Prince William Sound?
"We're at step No. 1, identifying equipment and manpower needs," Folley said. "Once we have that, we can take the next step of potential funding."
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com
(Correction: Gary Folley is manager of the state's Prevention and Emergency Response Program, not head of the state division of Spill Prevention and Response as the article originally said.)