In Arctic Drilling Debate, A Dispute Over Cleanup Preparedness

In Arctic Drilling Debate, A Dispute Over Cleanup Preparedness

9:12pm May 18, 2015

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Royal Dutch Shell has won permission to drill exploration wells this summer in Alaska's remote Chukchi Sea. That's on the condition that the company can show the government it can stop and clean up a potential spill. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on the tricky business of oil clean up in the Arctic.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The 1989 wreck of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska and disgorgement of 11 million gallons of oil showed that oil and Arctic waters don't mix well. Federal regulators however, say that after some false starts, Shell's plan is close to final approval. President Obama defended the government's decision yesterday.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Shell had to go back to the drawing board, revamp its approach and the experts at this point have concluded that they have met those standards.

JOYCE: What Shell still needs to do is fully convince regulators it can clean up a spill as well as protect wildlife - birds, whales, bears, walruses just to name a few. Margaret Williams of the World Wildlife Fund is skeptical the company can do that.

MARGARET WILLIAMS: There are huge questions about technology that has not been tested, and there is Mother Nature, which is very unpredictable. It's just a very, very severe and extreme environment.

JOYCE: And she says there's too much at risk to drill.

WILLIAMS: The amazing thing is that there are so many species that migrate to the Arctic Ocean and the shores of the Arctic Ocean because of the extensive habitat and the rich food resources.

JOYCE: But oil industry groups say they've learned lessons from both the Exxon Valdez spill and the BP spill five years ago in the Gulf of Mexico.

ERIK MILITO: The emphasis is, first of all, on prevention.

JOYCE: Erik Milito is an executive with the American Petroleum Institute. He says the institute and other oil groups have helped train workers to avoid accidents and cap blowouts with better technology.

MILITO: That is the one area where we've seen tremendous advancements by both industry and the government in working together to really create and instill and ensure a culture of safety.

JOYCE: But the Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy management says there is still a 75 percent chance of a significant spill in the Arctic over the next several decades if oil extraction goes forward in a big way. Milito says the industry has the tools to deal with that.

MILITO: ...Like booms and skimmers, and we have the ability to use dispersants to break up the oil into tiny droplets so it can naturally biodegrade. And we also have burning - herd the oil into one location so that you can burn it off.

JOYCE: Herding and burning oil has worked in Arctic waters during tests by industry experts with the Joint Industry Program. The group studies how oil behaves in cold waters. But one obstacle to clean up is finding and removing oil that's underneath ice. Another is to maneuver booms and skimmers to corral oil slicks in icy water. Chris Reddy is a marine chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who's been studying the Gulf oil spill. Reddy says experiments undertaken by the JIP are useful, but they only go so far.

CHRIS REDDY: You usually don't do experiments when they're in the worst-case scenarios, 'cause you can't do them.

JOYCE: Reddy says the Arctic's remoteness and extreme cold make it harder for crews to work there. On the other hand, the cold slows down the degradation of the oil, giving people more time to collect it before it hits shore. As for dispersants, Reddy says they did keep oil slicks from reaching the shorelines in the Gulf of Mexico. But the jury is still out on how much damage dispersants did to marine organisms. He wonders if the costs outweigh the benefits.

REDDY: We have to settle the books on whether or not dispersants were an effective tool in the Gulf of Mexico because it will play a role in the Arctic, I'm convinced of it.

JOYCE: Environmentalists argue that Shell has not proven it could clean up a spill. The company says it has. The government still has to issue a few more permits, but Shell is already moving equipment to start drilling this summer. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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