By DINA CAPPIELLO
WASHINGTON - A year after the disastrous Gulf oil spill, the prospect of a major accident in oil's next frontier - the icy waters off Alaska's north coast - has experts even more concerned.
With no roads connecting remote coastal towns, storms and fog that can ground aircraft, no deepwater ports for ships and the nearest Coast Guard station about one thousand miles away - it would be nearly impossible to respond on the scale that was needed last year to stop the runaway oil well and clean up the mess. That means the burden to respond would rest to an even greater degree on the company doing the drilling.
Like a backcountry camper, an oil company drilling off Alaska would have to bring all the equipment needed to the isolated drilling site. And the federal government, at least in the early stages, would be far away from the scene.
Unlike the Gulf, where tens of thousands of oil wells and runoff have tainted the waters for decades - and where rigs once again are probing the depths for oil - a spill in the Arctic risks tainting a pristine and sensitive landscape, one that has not been as well studied and where drilling in federal waters is limited. That makes it harder to determine what toll a spill would have on the endangered polar bears and migratory whales that make use of the oil-rich seas.
The accident in the Gulf last April highlighted shortcomings in spill preparedness. In the aftermath, experts such as Thad Allen - the government's point person on the Gulf spill - and the presidential oil spill commission have questioned whether companies, and the government, are adequately prepared to overcome the challenges of responding to an Arctic spill.
"We ought to be extremely careful about the Arctic, because we know that spill response and the Coast Guard cannot get to the Arctic very well," Cherry Murray, a member of the presidential oil spill panel, told a committee on ocean energy safety last week. "And cleanup is going to be considerably more difficult."
Despite lessons learned from the massive response to the Macondo well blowout on April 20 a year ago, many of the techniques deployed - skimming, burning and the application of chemical dispersants - either wouldn't work in the frigid seas and stormy skies off Alaska or would be diminished in effectiveness.
Booms, depending on the degree of ice cover, can freeze. Ice can also clog the suction devices used to mop up the spill, diminishing how much oil can be collected. Depending on the time of year a spill occurred, even daylight can be scarce.
"The problem is on what order of magnitude are you prepared to respond, and I don't really think we know that," said Allen, now a senior fellow at the Rand Corp. "That doesn't mean that we shouldn't proceed, but everyone needs to know that's a very, very difficult place to operate."
Allen, in an interview with The Associated Press, listed the challenges: The largest city anywhere close to the drilling, Barrow, has extremely limited motel space; there is no hangar for aircraft, a must in stormy and variable weather, and the shallow water means no port.
"One has to wonder, at the height of the Macondo spill, we engaged over 45,000 people and thousands of thousands of boats," Allen said. "Depending on the type of problem you might encounter there, the lack of infrastructure, lack of forward operating bases, austerity of the environment, plus the distance to port is problematic."
The renewed focus on the obstacles to spill response off Alaska comes as the Obama administration is under increasing pressure to boost domestic oil production as a means of tempering high gasoline prices. President Barack Obama last month set a target of reducing foreign oil imports by a third by 2025.
To reach that goal, he will need the oil and gas off Alaska, where an estimated 27 billion barrels of oil lies beneath the ocean floor. That's 2.5 times the amount produced in the entire Gulf of Mexico since 1990. Yet despite these huge reserves, the costs of drilling in the Arctic, along with permitting delays and lawsuits have resulted in fewer than 100 wells being drilled in federal waters off Alaska. Only about three dozen of those are in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off of Alaska's northern and northwest coasts.
In December, in part because of concerns about responding to an oil spill, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar canceled the sale of new oil and gas leases in the Arctic. And a federal court recently ordered the agency to go back and analyze the risks of a large oil spill for a 2008 Chukchi lease sale, including how it would be handled.
While the department said it would honor existing leases, delays in permitting have caused the only company that was seeking to drill a new exploratory well in federal waters off Alaska to delay those plans until 2012.
That company, Shell Oil Co., says it will be fully prepared to handle a worst-case spill, in the unlikely event that one occurs. Peter Velez, Shell's oil spill response manager, told the AP that equipment would be stationed offshore with the drilling rig and could start skimming oil within an hour of a spill.
The company also will have onsite back-up blowout preventers, the valve tower on the sea floor that is supposed to shut a well in the event of a blowout. The one on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf failed to halt the flow of oil.
And in another difference from the Gulf disaster, a new capping and containment system that under construction could reach its target within days or weeks. In BP's case in the Gulf, the equipment that eventually contained the spill before the well was killed needed to be built from scratch.
"We will have enough equipment at each of the locations to meet, and in most cases exceed, the worst-case discharge," Velez said.
In the spill last April, the worst seemed to happen - a super-deep well in about a mile of water and nearly 3 1/2 miles below the ocean floor erupted, spilling as much as 2.4 million gallons of oil into the Gulf each day.
A spill of that magnitude is much less likely in the Arctic, according to experts, where drilling would occur in very shallow water, where oil and gas are not as deep underground, and where pressures are three to four times less than what is found in the deepwater Gulf.
Ice, which can be an obstacle to clean up, can also act as a natural barrier to a spill. And the frigid water means the oil would be slower to degrade, buying more time to apply dispersants, burn off oil and use other clean-up techniques - though potentially exposing wildlife to more toxins. Exploratory drilling, as Shell points out, would be limited to the open water season from July-October, making the timing of a spill important. If one were to happen toward the end of the season, ice would be coming in, complicating cleanup efforts.
Leslie Pearson, who for 19 years worked at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and who for the last six years has been in charge of oil spill response - says it wouldn't take very long for a long-term blowout to exceed a single company's response capabilities.
"I have my doubts for sure, about being able to sustain a response," Pearson said. "What makes or breaks an oil spill response is whether you can get personnel or equipment to the site in a timely manner. In a long-term blowout, it will only be a matter of time before they are overwhelmed."
Alaska Clean Seas, an oil spill response contractor for 10 companies with oil and gas drilling operations in Alaska, most in state waters, is currently prepared to handle a spill of 231,000 gallons a day - as Alaska's state law requires.
But most of its equipment is located in Prudhoe Bay, some 90 miles from where Shell hoped to start drilling this year.
In a recent analysis requested by a federal court, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement simulated a hypothetical blowout in the Chukchi Sea. The calculation estimated that a blowout there could release as much 2.6 million gallons a day, a disaster of Macondo-sized proportions. The only remedy analyzed was a relief well, which would take 39 days to drill if the rig on site were used. The analysis assumes total failure of the blowout preventer and no cap or containment, scenarios made more unlikely by requirements put in place since the Gulf spill.
Velez called it "an extreme scenario."
Ron Morris, president of Alaska Clean Seas, said he was confident he would be ready to help out.
"Nobody wants to have a Macondo spill anywhere," Morris said. "That scenario would not bode well anywhere in the U.S., I don't care who you are or where you are."