ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Inupiat Eskimo whale hunter George Kingik follows news accounts of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He cringes when he imagines crude fouling his backyard, Alaska’s Chukchi Sea.
Shell Oil two years ago spent $2.1 billion for leases in the Chukchi, the arm of the Arctic Ocean that the United States shares with Russia, and the home to one of America’s two polar bear populations.
“They’re not ready for the Arctic,” Kingik said from his home in Point Hope, 700 miles (1,125 kilometres) northwest of Anchorage. “It’s completely different up here.”
The federal Minerals Management Service estimated the sale area contained 15 billion barrels of conventionally recoverable oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of conventionally recoverable natural gas. Shell is poised to begin exploratory drilling this summer on leases as far as 140 miles (225 kilometres) off shore.
Alaska Native groups and environmentalists are hoping a judge or the Obama administration will intervene.
Shell notched a significant court victory last week when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected consolidated lawsuits that challenged Minerals Management Service approval of the oil company’s plans.
The court determined that the MMS met its obligations to consider the potential threat of exploratory drilling to wildlife and the risk for disaster before it approved Shell’s Arctic Ocean projects.
Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the company awaits appeals of required federal air permits before it can send its drilling ship north to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska’s northwest and north coast. The company also needs a final Interior Department blessing and authorizations on several wildlife issues.
Alaska’s indigenous people and environmentalists say a catastrophic spill in the Chukchi would leave the petroleum company without backup resources considered routine in the rest of the country.
The nearest Coast Guard base is Kodiak, more than 900 air miles (1,450 kilometres) away. Nearby coastal communities such as Point Hope are tiny and lack deep-water harbours and large airports. Cleanup assets are stationed at Prudhoe Bay, hundreds of miles away on Alaska’s north coast. Unlike at Prince William Sound, where more than 300 fishing boats are under contract to lay down boom if another supertanker hits a reef like the Exxon Valdez, there’s no one to call for local assistance.
If a blowout occurred late in the summer, it could be impossible for another rig to arrive and drill a relief well before the water freezes, leaving a well to flow until it plugged itself or spill response vessels reached it the following summer, according to drilling opponents.
Shell’s 514-foot (155-meter) drilling ship, the Frontier Discoverer, could be in place by July. Smith said Shell can drill safely and that it’s not fair to draw parallels between drilling in the relatively shallow Chukchi and the Gulf of Mexico.
“The (Deepwater) Horizon was drilling in 5,000 feet of water to a depth of 18,000 feet,” he said by email. “The pressure they encountered in the well is three to five times greater than what we expect to encounter in Alaska, where we will be drilling in 150 feet of water to a depth of roughly 10,000 feet.”
The difference in expected down-hole pressure, he said, gives Shell a slightly higher safety margin.