Shell Oil expects to be drilling in the Arctic this summer after getting the green light from the White House this week. But can Shell or its federal regulators keep the frozen region and its unique wildlife safe from another Deepwater Horizon-type spill?
"We have taken a thoughtful approach to carefully considering potential exploration in the Chukchi Sea, recognizing the significant environmental, social and ecological resources in the region and establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, our Arctic communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives," Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said in a statement.
"As we move forward, any offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to rigorous safety standards."
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Experts say the Arctic poses many challenges for drillers. It's hard to move workers and material around. The cold weather can destroy equipment and shut down operations. Heavy seas can flip ships and floating drilling rigs, while the nearest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles away.
New technology designed to withstand Arctic temperatures can help, but a big spill would be difficult if not impossible to clean up.
"If you have a significant oil spill in the ocean, there will be significant environmental consequences and none of them are good," said Paul W. Bommer, professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Texas who worked with the federal government's "plume team" to estimate the amount of oil escaping from BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Shell officials counter that they and other oil firms have drilled 500 test wells in the Arctic region without a spill. They also say that the shallower water of the Chukchi Sea means that the pressure on the wellheads will be less, and that it will be easier to access should something to wrong.
Shell spokeswoman Kayla Macke said in an email statement that preventing a spill is the company's number one priority.
"We have built an industry-leading capability in preventing spills and in our readiness to respond to any that occur. We regularly test our plans and preparedness, and take part in large-scale joint exercises with other industry partners, government agencies, scientists and oil spill experts," Macke said.
"If any system or device fails, a back-up system or device immediately takes over to prevent a well blowout. For our drilling operations in Alaska, we have a robust response program consisting of a dedicated on-site fleet, near-shore barges and response vessels and onshore response teams. And, in the event of a worst-case scenario, we have developed technologies that can track and remove spilled oil from solid and broken ice."
Under the terms of the drilling agreement, Shell can only work in the region during the ice-free months during the summer and fall. The oil giant had started drilling test wells in 2012 when its oil drilling barge the Kullik, broke free from a tow rope during heavy seas and ran aground on an uninhabited island in the Bering Sea. The 2013 Coast Guard report blamed Shell and the tow operator for the near-disaster.
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Bob Bea, a retired civil engineering professor at UC Berkeley and an oil industry consultant, says that the federal government didn't require Shell to abide by post-Deepwater Horizon safety rules that were adopted in 2013.
"What concerns me is that because they are not 'finalized,' (the government) specified that Shell would not be subject to these guidelines that contain a lot of the lessons taught by the BP Macondo disaster," Bea said.
"The assertion was made that Shell would be subject to 'rigorous safety requirements.' If this were true, for me, it would be the first time any U.S. operator working at any location offshore had actually developed rigorous safety requirements."
Environmental groups were dealt a big setback by the White House announcement, however Shell still needs permits from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and authorizations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The drilling region is a major migration route and feeding area for bowhead whales and walruses.