Image: Kaktovik, Alaska
Jeff Hutchens  /  Getty Images file
Wind howls across the icescape in Kaktovik on Alaska's northeast coast.
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updated 4/22/2011 6:38:44 PM ET 2011-04-22T22:38:44

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.

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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.

Story: 3,200 abandoned oil and gas wells lack cement plugs

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.

Story: Flyover, vigils mark Gulf oil spill anniversary

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.

  1. Related links
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    2. One year after the spill, where's the oil?
    3. Flyover, vigils mark Gulf oil spill anniversary
    4. 'Opportunities' for new oil spills still there

"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.

Story: 'Opportunities' for new oil spills are still there

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.

Story: 3,200 abandoned oil and gas wells lack cement plugs

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 3½ 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.

Slideshow: The BP spill revisited (on this page)

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.

  1. Related links
    1. 3,200 abandoned Gulf wells lack cement plugs
    2. One year after the spill, where's the oil?
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    4. 'Opportunities' for new oil spills still there
Interactive: A year after the spill (on this page)

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."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The BP spill revisited

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  1. Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana on April 21, 2010. (USCG) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Smoke from the Deepwater Horizon rises high above the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010. The rig sank the next day. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A Northern Gannet, normally white when fully grown, is washed to remove oil from the spill at a facility in Fort Jackson, La., on April 30. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Glenn Corbett, of Pensacola, Fla., gets help from his granddaughter Emma Wilmoth, 5, as they joined hundreds of volunteers picking up trash along Escambia County beaches on May 2, 2010. Officials organized the massive beach cleanup in anticipation of an oil slick. (Scott Keeler / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mark DeFelice, executive chef at Pascal's Manale restaurant in New Orleans, lines up Eastern oysters for customers on May 3, 2010. The oysters were harvested from Louisiana waters before the oil slick caused fishing and harvesting closures. (David Friedman / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Alabama National Guardsmen assemble a barrier to block oil on Dauphin Island, Ala., on May 4, 2010. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Rob Lewis, center, and Dexter Strange unload crab traps from their boats on May 5, 2010, after having to dump their catch in Shell Beach, La., due to the oil spill. (Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Conservationist Rick Steiner collects a sample of oily water near Breton Island, La., on May 5, 2010. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Some of the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead is seen on May 6, 2010. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Greenpeace marine biologist Paul Horsman surveys oil pooled between reeds and brush at the mouth of the Mississippi River on May 17, 2010. (Hans Deryk / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats some 15 miles northwest of the spill site on May 18, 2010. (Hans Deryk / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, center, and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, right, tour the oil impacted marsh of Pass a Loutre, La., on May 19, 2010. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Nesting pelicans are seen as oil washes ashore May 22 on an island that is home to hundreds of brown pelican nests as well as terns, gulls and roseate spoonbills in Louisiana's Barataria Bay. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A BP cleanup crew removes oil from a beach at Port Fourchon, La., on May 23. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A sign warns the public away from the beach on Grand Isle, La., on May 23. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Oil streaks into the Gulf of Mexico on May 26 near Brush Island, La. (Win Mcnamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. An image taken from a BP video feed shows a robotic arm using a wrench during the "top kill" procedure on May 27. The bid to stop the flow failed. (BP via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A brown pelican coated in heavy oil wallows in the surf on East Grand Terre Island, La., on June 4. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A worker cleans up oil in Plaquemines Parish, La., on June 4. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A cleanup worker picks up blobs of oil with absorbent snare on Queen Bess Island in Louisiana's Barataria Bay on June 4. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Tar balls sit on the beach in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 5. (Dave Martin / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Workers use absorbent pads to remove oil in Grand Isle, La., on June 6. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. This protest at a BP gas station in Pensacola, Fla., on June 6 targeted the oil giant. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A dead sea turtle floats on a pool of oil in Barataria Bay off Louisiana on June 7. (Charlie Riedel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Jars of water mixed with oil collected off Louisiana and Alabama are stacked in front of Gulf Coast residents as they attend a news conference June 16 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Thick crude oil from the BP spill is seen in Barataria Bay near Port Sulphur, La., on June 20. (Erik S. Lesser / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. James McGee vacuums oil in Barataria Bay on June 20. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Out of work fishermen seeking to be hired as cleanup crew talk to BP representatives in Larose, La., on June 20. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. People line up in Pensacola, Fla., on June 26 to protest offshore oil drilling during a 'Hands Across the Sand' event. The protest took place in hundreds of cities across 30 countries. (Dan Anderson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. With no tourists to hire him, fishing guide Raymond Griffin eats lunch in a nearly empty cookhouse at Griffin Fishing Charters in Lafitte, La., on June 26. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A heavily oiled bird is rescued from the waters of Barataria Bay on June 26. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. In this image taken from video on July 12, oil flows out of the top of the transition spool, which was placed into the gushing wellhead prior to the well being capped. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Oily water washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on June 26. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: One year after Gulf spill, oil remains

  1. Closed captioning of: One year after Gulf spill, oil remains

    >>> a year to the day after the deep water horison oil rig explosion fell into the waters of mexico, killing 11 workers, some of the survivors, family workers flew over that site today, and sin that day, grief has been mixed with anger over this disaster all along the gulf coast . our chief environmental affairs correspondent is with us tonight.

    >> reporter: good evening, late today, bp filed suit against the maker of the blow-out preventers alleging a faulty design contributed to the oil spill . some of that oil is still in louisiana's marshes, and now officials here are trying to decide if the effort to clean it up is worth the risk to this fragile coastline. one year later, there are still clean-up workers in one of the most heavily oiled areas in louisiana' coast. using a giant hedge clipper , they cut a marsh to get at the oil trapped by the grasses. a giant rake gets the debris.

    >> this is a little bit of resid ial left.

    >> it has a sticky consistency.

    >> it's kind of like a peanut butter consistency. if you try to get it all, you would really be potentially excavating the marsh and losing it.

    >> reporter: 60 miles away , another area devastated by the spill, a path of blanks leads the way to the path of oil. the pungent odor of the summer is gone, but all it takes is a couple shovel fulls of muck and you can see the tell tale rust colored signs of oil.

    >> the sheen on the surface.

    >>> james peters who makes his living leading deep- sea fishing trips is seeing it, too.

    >> you can see a sheen and oil droplets in the water.

    >> there is no more visible oil on the island where we first saw the pictures. how healthy does cat island look to you?

    >> frankly, it doesn't look too healthy.

    >> he points to the dying man mangroves on the edge and the leafless interior. still, pelicans make their nest here. for all the effort of the past year, environmentalists say cleanup without coast restoration is pointless.

    >> it's for naught because in five years all of that's going to be eroded away. in 50 years, it's all gone. everything you see is gone.

    >> now, finally tonight, the government is strongly disputing an associated press report that says 3,200 wells in the gulf of mexico do not have cement plug and threaten to leak oil into the waters. the government said those are sealed and they're monitored every six month.

Interactive: A year after the spill

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