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Arctic oil-spill response: Coast Guard's Papp should be ashamed

Craig Medred
Sara Francis / USCG

Someone needs to get the U.S. Coast Guard Commandant, Adm. Robert Papp, lessons in how to read a chart because he appears clueless about Alaska's Arctic despite a recent over-flight.

"If British Petroleum had all the resources on hand at the time that Shell has in place for drilling today, we probably would have been able to stop that spill much quicker and certainly more effectively," he told reporters in Alaska this week, referring to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

As someone who covered the early days of the oil spill that followed the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf, I have to wonder if Papp hadn't been breathing too many fumes from the engine of an HC-130 before making that statement.

Maybe he's forgotten the difficulties of stopping the Deepwater spill only 50 miles from the heartland of American oil-field technology. Deepwater was just offshore from Louisiana, where the offshore oil and gas industry began in 1947 and has been going ever since.

By the time Deepwater exploded, the Gulf of Mexico was littered with offshore drill rigs, and the Gulf Coast had spent about 60 years developing the technology and infrastructure to deal with blowouts and spills. "Today, the offshore oil and gas industry has an economic impact of $44.3 billion for the state of Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association.

And that is just Louisiana. The states of Mississippi and Alabama just to the east are deep into the oil business, and, of course, west of Louisiana is a little state named Texas, which just happens to be the homeland of the American oil and gas "bidness,'' as those Texans call it.

When the Deepwater Horizon rig blew out above the Macondo Prospect on April 20, 2010, killing 11 men who are now all but forgotten, BP had near immediate access to the best in American oil technology and expertise in stopping blowouts and cleaning up oil. They did a somewhat miraculous job of clean-up thanks to the use of an estimated 1.84 million gallons of dispersants, a chemical spill all its own.

There are still big debates about the environmental consequences of those dispersants, but as a reporter who also covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound -- the biggest oil mess in North America prior to Deepwater -- I feel comfortable saying that though the subtle environmental impacts of dispersant use might turn out to be greater than BP thinks, the clear and obvious benefits of keeping oil from hitting the surface of the water and coming ashore in huge slicks outweigh those problems.

No comparison

And right here, it needs to be said in defense of Shell Oil, the planned drilling in Alaska's Arctic waters is nothing like what was going on in the Gulf of Mexico. BP was drilling in water almost a mile deep off Louisiana. It was operating near the limits of drilling technology. In the Chukchi Sea, off the far northwest tip of Alaska, Shell plans to punch some holes in the seabed only about 150 feet below the surface.

The technology for this sort of drilling is well proven, including the blowout prevention and control technology. I've interviewed some of the people involved in overseeing the drilling. I've investigated their backgrounds. They know what they are doing. The risks here are minimal.

Producing oil from the Arctic is an entirely different issue, but when it comes to drilling some exploratory wells, Shell seems well equipped to do that and do that safely. On balance, it's worth proceeding because someone is going to proceed. If not Shell on this side of the border, the Russians or the Chinese on the other.

The Arctic appears to contain some of the last great reservoirs of oil. Someone is going to tap them, and frankly, not to bad-mouth the Russians or Chinese, I'd rather have the technology to do that developed by people working from this country simply because the environmental standards here tend to be a lot tougher. I have more faith in American regulators to make Shell toe the line on spill prevention technology, because the issue here isn't about stopping an oil leak, "quicker" or otherwise.

And that's what makes Papp's statement so troubling.

His statement that "we probably would have been able to stop that spill much quicker and certainly more effectively'' suggests he has some concern, no matter how small, that such efforts could prove necessary. If that's the case, Papp should be taking the lead in stopping Shell until he's confident this drilling can be conducted without a spill.

Shell is confident of that. They make a strong argument they've got the technology to do this. A lot of knowledgeable people believe them, including former Chicago Tribune reporter Bob Reiss, who spent considerable time working on a book about the Eskimos of the North Slope and Shell. He wrote a column for Forbes magazine saying that "in short, as a Green I believe it important to balance environmental protection with development and I had to face a fundamental truth about that in writing 'The Eskimo and the Oil Man.' Balance means you have to allow drilling at times, not just always say no.”

You have to read between the lines a bit to get the most important message in his column: This country needs oil. We are, at least in the short term, still wedded to it. Alaska needs oil, too, as I've written in the past. Personally, I don't like it. I'd rather ride my bike than drive my truck.

But oil remains this country's lifeblood. Almost everything that supports Alaska these days arrives here on ships fueled by oil, and I -- for one -- would rather have them fueled by that than by coal or nuclear power, at least at this time. And I'll confess that I am no more appreciative of oil than when I get on my snowmachine to go cover the Iditarod Trail Invitational, the world's coolest bike race, or the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the Superbowl of Alaska.

U.S. an 'Arctic nation'? Nope.

But let's not kid ourselves, an oil well blowout and spill in the Arctic would be a disaster of epic proportions because no matter how well equipped Shell might be, the nation is sorely under-equipped.

The idea that the United States of America is an “Arctic nation” is a joke.

The latest proof of that is that Papp can tout a small, temporary Coast Guard detail in Barrow as sufficient back-up for Gulf-like oil disaster without being mocked by editorial boards across the country.

The other most recent proof came on Monday, when Papp commented to a Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee about that same temporary force, “For right now, we are well prepared, because like we always do traditionally, we have multi-mission assets that we can deploy, that are very capable, and that are sufficient for the level of human activity that’s going on this summer and perhaps for the next three or four summers.”

Apparently neither Papp nor the rest of America know enough about the changing Arctic to be skeptical of those claims. He's probably right about the Coast Guard being "well prepared" for this Arctic summer, though. It's nearing an end. And Shell hasn't been able to do much. Maybe that is a good thing.

If Shell needed 1.84 million gallons of dispersant 70 miles offshore in the Chukchi as BP did 50 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, they'd be simply screwed. There is no established shipping to the Arctic to haul dispersant north. There is no port in the Arctic. The only major airstrip is in Barrow. The North Slough Borough has a couple helicopters there. The Coast Guard brought in two more.

How much dispersant do you think they could ferry to a spewing hole 70 miles offshore? I can tell you: Not enough. Not, under any scenario, enough. And if Shell needed consultants to help with advice on some sort of totally unpredictable blow out, where are those people?

They're in Houston or New Orleans, or maybe in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. But even Calgary is a long way from the Chukchi, more than 1,500 miles to be exact. Kodiak, the major Coast Guard base in Alaska, is closer. It's only about half that distance -- 750 miles -- southeast of the action.

Never mind that it's ill-equipped to deal with Arctic issues, too. It doesn't have the equipment.

When Papp talks about "the resources on hand," he isn't talking about the agency he runs -- the Coast Guard. He's talking about Shell, the oil company.

As far as anyone can tell, the policy of the Coast Guard regarding the Chukchi Sea is the same as the policy of the Coast Guard regarding the Beaufort Sea at Prudhoe Bay: Forfeit national responsibility for coastal protection to the oil industry. Farm it out, as they say. It's a national embarrassment.

Papp ought to be ashamed to claim Shell has access to anything near the resources BP had access to in the Gulf of Mexico.

But clearly he's not.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.