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Icy area opens to drills, but what about spills?

Oil Spills Ice
Randall Luthi, director of the federal Minerals Management Service, on Feb. 6 shows the offshore petroleum lease area in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.Al Grillo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The director of the Minerals Management Service was on hand when the agency leased millions of offshore acres for petroleum development in the Chukchi Sea, home to one of America's two polar bear populations. Protesters were on hand to greet Randall Luthi.

Environmental groups and Alaska Natives who harvest whales, seals, walrus and salmon said not one acre should have been opened for drilling until oil companies prove they can overcome a basic environmental hurdle: cleaning up a major spill in sea water that's partially covered by broken ice.

No oil spill responders have demonstrated that they can clean up oil in broken ice that ranges from slush to cakes, said Margaret Williams of the World Wildlife Fund in Alaska. Ice jams skimmers, tears up containment boom, clogs pumps and impedes access to floating crude.

"We're not antidevelopment. We're not antigrowth. But this is just stupid," Williams said.

The same conditions that contribute to oil spill risk — darkness during the long Alaska winter, extreme cold, moving ice, high wind and low visibility — would make spill response difficult or ineffective, according to the WWF.

Luthi said there almost appears to a supposition that drilling cannot coexist with a clean environment where marine mammals thrive.

"It's my personal belief, and certainly the belief of MMS, that these two are compatible," Luthi said, "but you've got to work at it."

The stakes are enormous as federal policy makers look to find new sources of domestic oil and conservation groups turn to lawsuits to protect northern marine mammals and birds already facing habitat loss from the effects of global warming on sea ice.

Leased area size of Pennsylvania
The Chukchi sale drew high bids of nearly $2.7 billion on more than 4,310 square miles of ocean bottom within an area the size of Pennsylvania. The MMS estimates the sale area contains 15 billion barrels of conventionally recoverable oil.

Luthi, an attorney, rancher and former speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives, said the technology exists for cleaning up a spill in broken ice, such as sending skimmers to pick up pockets of oil hemmed in by ice floes.

"It's not your traditional boats with booms to trap the oil. That doesn't work with the ice," he said. Burning is another possibility.

This photo released by Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation shows an a simulated oil spill cleanup exercise in broken ice in the Beaufort sea, off of Alaska, in 2000. Environmental groups and Alaska Natives protested the sale, claiming the oil industry has not proved that a major oil spill can be cleaned up in broken ice. Kirsten Ballard / Alaska Department of Environment

The last time federal and state regulators evaluated an oil spill drill in broken ice off Alaska's coast, the results were not promising.

When ice covered more than 30 percent of the water, the mechanical recovery system became overwhelmed and collapsed, evaluators said of tests conducted by BP Exploration in the Beaufort Sea in 2000.

In less than 30 percent ice, skimmers lifted oil from the water — as long as tug boats ran interference, pushing away all but 10 percent of the ice.

Ron Morris, general manager of Alaska Clean Seas, an industry cooperative that would respond to a Beaufort spill, said response techniques changed in response to the 2000 report. Responders added ice management vessels and tactics that included barge, boat and crane combinations to remove pockets of oil trapped by ice floes.

State and federal regulators still have misgivings.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, which manages endangered bowhead whales, gave its OK for exploration in the Beaufort and Chukchi but said it was especially concerned about the ability to contain and recover spilled oil under broken or newly forming ice.

Ice means 'another level'
Leslie Pearson, the state of Alaska's director of spill prevention and response, describes a cleanup in ice as "complex." The remote location of the Chukchi Sea, a body of water shared with Russia, the lack of nearby infrastructure, the strong currents and a host of unknowns would add to the complexity.

"It's not one of those calls I'd like to wake up to," she said. "It would put you in a cold sweat."

Getting to a spill quickly is key, she said. After 72 hours, as oil emulsifies, burning and dispersants fall out of the cleanup equation, she said.

Some skimming devices have shown themselves to be effective in broken ice, she said. But as they operate in freezing conditions, ice buildup can reduce their ability to recover oil. Navigating through ice floes would be a challenge. If a spill is beneath ice, responders would have to find it and track it.

"It takes an oil spill response to another level, as opposed to dealing with an open-water scenario," she said.

Shell Oil, which paid $2.1 billion on 275 high bids in the Chukchi, would respond to a sub-sea well blowout in varying ice conditions with barges and skimmers, progressing to boats with icebreaking capabilities to expose oil and make it available for burning or removal, according to its cleanup plan.

Shell also is part of a consortium with six other oil companies and SINTEF, the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia, spending millions to improve tracking and cleanup of spilled oil in ice. The consortium is conducting research in Norway's Barents Sea.

Williams said the MMS pushed ahead with the Chukchi sale despite information gaps, including an agreement for spill cleanup with Russia. The burden to prove risk continues to fall on conservation groups, she said. The Arctic and vulnerable wildlife already are undergoing stresses with global warming and don't need more from seismic activity, marine traffic and the potential for petroleum spills, she said.

"We'd like to see the technology proved before this development goes forward," she said.