Federal Government Approves Shell Oil’s Spill Response Plan

The federal government has signed off on Shell Oil Company’s spill response plan for the Chukchi Sea, clearing a major hurdle for the Houston oil giant to begin drilling vast Arctic Ocean reserves off Alaska’s coast during the 2012 summer open water season. Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh says this is a big milestone but there’s still work to be done.

“We still have an authorization we need to get from National Marine Fisheries and we also have an authorization we need to get from the U.S Fish and Wildlife. And then finally and very importantly, we need the actual permits to drill approved. We have begun that process by beginning to submit some of the documentation to receive those permits and we’ll continue that process and that will continue for several weeks to come.”

Op de Weegh says one rig is in Seattle now and another will arrive next month or in April.

“We knew we had to bring everything with us in the event there is ever an incident. The new plan also includes a newly engineered Arctic capping and containment system and that is being built right now and we will test that before drilling begins this summer.”

The well sites in the Chukchi are more than 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard base. Op de Weegh acknowledges the lack of infrastructure and says that’s why the spill plan approved today by the Interior department includes on site, near shore and on shore resources and an oil spill response fleet.

Arctic Ocean drilling is opposed by environmentalists who contend oil companies can’t clean up a crude oil spill in icy waters. Wilderness Society Alaska region spokesman Tim Woody says the decision is a disappointment. He says meeting the federal requirements for a spill plan does not translate into the real ability to recover oil in arctic and winter storm conditions.

“They managed to recover about three percent of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deep Water Horizon spill. It’s hard to believe that anybody in the oil industry can claim they’re going to recover a high percentage of oil in the arctic when they’ve been unable to do that anywhere else in the work under more hospitable conditions.”

The federal government estimates Arctic Ocean outer continental shelf reserves at more than 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori