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Murkowski seeks Arctic oil spill answers

Patti Epler

Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Friday questioned Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby about his company's Arctic oil spill response and cleanup capabilities while about a dozen reporters and photographers watched.

If the unusual senatorial briefing at Shell's Anchorage headquarters felt a bit staged that's because it was -- at least sort of -- although Murkowski insisted the approach was simply an attempt at full transparency. She said she really has never had a detailed look at Shell's plan and wanted one, especially as new reports come out on the scientific information available about the Arctic.

Shell has applied to drill in both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in 2012 and 2013.

Murkowski said her staff had suggested she meet with Shell then hold a press conference to tell the public what she'd learned. She decided to just bring reporters in and let them ask questions, too, although not until the end.

"It should not feel staged because it was done absolutely positively as 'Give me the information,'" Murkowski said. "And the response was 'then are you going to talk to the press about it?' So I just figured I'd kill two birds with one stone. That's as calculated as it was."

Still, the meeting comes as Shell is seeking approval for a variety of federal permits. Public comment is due Monday on one key decision and other applications are in the midst of longer comment periods.

After Shell's permit applications stalled earlier this year causing the company to lose a drilling season, members of the House and Senate -- including Murkowski -- introduced legislation aimed at forcing federal officials to decide on permits more quickly. Environmental activists have accused Shell of trying to end run the regulatory process by seeking help from friends in Congress to derail regulators.

Star witness treatment

At times on Friday it did feel like Murkowski, an attorney, was leading her star witness through his testimony as Slaiby and his crew walked her through a power point presentation and short animation of the company's response to a well blowout and oil spill. The discussion highlighted the key points Shell has been trying to get across to regulators, lawmakers and the public:

-- Shell has broad experience in the Arctic and is putting in place an unprecedented "response community" tailored for the climate and the environment.

-- Shell's operations in the Alaska Outer Continental Shelf will benefit Native communities by bringing high-tech communications and equipment to an area where it is lacking. Shell will be mindful of and encourage "traditional knowledge" to help the company deal with any issues, such as ice conditions or avoiding disrupting wildlife the residents depend on.

-- Shell would stop its drilling operations when whales are present and would cut its program short if ice came in earlier then expected and presented a problem.

-- A sophisticated blowout containment system was designed with an eye toward lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico last spring. In addition to blowout preventers including shear rams that close off the well in case of emergency, a capping system is being designed that could drop in place over the well. The system includes a way to pump oil, gas and water to the surface and into tanks on a barge.

-- Additional drill ships could be moved into place within a few days if it was necessary to drill a relief well. An Arctic tanker and containment barge would be stationed mid-way between the two drilling sites -- roughly offshore from Barrow -- and could be rapidly accessible if needed.

-- All the equipment and crews needed for a major oil spill response would be located at each of the two sites and initial response gear deployed within 60 minutes. Native villagers have been trained in response skills and would be put to work. If more equipment or cleanup measures were necessary, Shell could tap into a worldwide response system that would supply more equipment and manpower.

-- Booms to corral any spilled oil and in-situ burning would be the primary tools to clean it from the Arctic waters. But those don't work in rough seas and in that case chemical dispersants would be spread by airplane on an oil slick. Cold water and cold air result in a longer window to get burning going or dispersants spread before conditions deteriorate.

-- There are a number of differences between physical, environmental and geologic conditions in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic so people shouldn't be too quick to compare the two areas. Arctic drilling is much shallower and the pressure in the reservoir is much less. So an oil plume in the Gulf of Mexico took an hour to rise to the surface and by that time spread over a mile in diameter. Shell's modeling shows it a plume in the Arctic areas the company plan's would surface in 10 second and initially be about 250 feet in diameter, making it easier to contain if equipment is quickly deployed. Shallower water means there are fewer currents to spread it around.

During questioning by reporters, Murkowski acknowledged she has "long been an advocate for responsible oil and gas development in our state" and that the presentation gave her "more assurances that Shell really is building a response community up in the Arctic."

But she said she has traveled extensively in the region and still has some concerns over the lack of infrastructure that would be needed in the event of a major environmental disaster. She is interested in construction of a deepwater port somewhere along the coast so oil company and Coast Guard vessels would have a place to stage out of.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com