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Arctic oil spill could prove tough to clean

August 4, 2011 |  5:30 pm

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Shell Exploration's plan for exploratory oil and gas drilling in the Beaufort Sea won conditional approval from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. One of the big questions now is what happens if there's an oil spill.

Agency officials are expected as early as next week to act on Shell's oil spill response plan, which conservationists say falls short of the mark for responding to an accident in icy waters, often shrouded in darkness, hundreds of miles from the nearest deep-water port.

Earlier this month, Canada looked at the same issue: How hard would it be to clean up an oil spill in the Beaufort Sea, which straddles the border between the two countries. The answer? Really hard.

Even in the "summer" season between July and October, when Arctic drilling normally occurs, true open water without ice occurs only 54% to 88% of the time, even close to shore, according to the report, prepared for the National Energy Board by S.L. Ross Environmental Research Ltd. of Ottawa.

Conditions can be so bad that no ice cleanup measures are even possible about 20% of the time in June, 40% of the time in August and 65% of the time in October, said the report, which measured typical temperatures, wave heights and ice patterns and how they might prevent the use of such responses as in-situ burning, containment  and application of dispersants.

After October, any active response would almost certainly deferred until the following melt season, the report said.

Canada, Norway and Russia are also studying offshore oil development in the Arctic, with Moscow earlier this year announcing plans to proceed with an exploration program in partnership with BP.

"BOEMRE approval of Shell's drilling plan is silent as to the agency's assessment of Shell's oil spill plan. BOEMRE shouldn't have approved Shell's drilling plan without an adequate, approved oil spill plan demonstrating Shell's ability to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic's icy waters," a coalition of conservation groups, including the Alaska Wilderness League, the Sierra Club, Oceana and Defenders of Wildlife, among others, said in a statement.

They said Shell's assertion that it can recover 95% of any oil spilled in Arctic waters using mechanical containment devices is unrealistic, given a much lower rate of recovery during the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and assumes conditions in August, not October, "when ice, darkness and bad weather prevail."

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the company has shown its ability to clean up even more than the estimated worst-case volume of a potential spill. "Additionally, Shell remains committed to fabricating an oil spill capping system which is designed to capture hydrocarbons at the source in the extremely unlikely event of a shallow water blowout," Smith said.

RELATED:

Shell gets conditional approval for U.S. Arctic drilling plan

Drilling in Arctic waters? Scientists aren't sure if it's safe

Shell Alaska drops plan for offshore Arctic drilling this year

--Kim Murphy

Photo: Arctic drilling rig at ConocoPhillips onshore Alpine field, on Alaska's North Slope near the Beaufort Sea. Credit: ConocoPhillips.

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