Inlet unprepared for well blow-outs

Posted: Monday, May 10, 2010

On April 20, the "state-of-the-art" semisubmersible drilling rig Horizon burst into flames in the Gulf of Mexico after blow-out prevention devices failed to function. On Earth Day 2010, the rig sank. Eleven workers tragically died, and as of this writing, the well is spewing anywhere from a quarter million to a million gallons a day of crude oil into important fisheries habitats. The responsible party -- British Petroleum -- has a long string of regulatory violations in Alaska, and it allegedly fought rules to enhance blow-out safeguards in the Gulf. Now, Alaskans and people throughout the world are watching the horror of another Exxon Valdez unleashed on Gulf families, businesses and fisheries. This tragedy comes on the heels of the Obama Administration's recent announcement to expand offshore oil drilling off the Lower 48, and to press forward with additional exploration in Cook Inlet and the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

In Alaska, Governor Parnell is poised to sign SB 309, which would dole out up to a 100 percent subsidy -- at a value up to $25 million -- to the first oil company that drills a new well in Cook Inlet waters. Lesser rebates would be available for subsequent wells. The bill passed the Alaska Legislature with only two dissenting votes. At a time when Tea Party activists are condemning government spending, and when free market principles are routinely heralded as the savior of our economic woes, it's especially ironic for the State of Alaska to be distorting our markets with massive subsidies to well-heeled oil corporations in the wake of the BP spill disaster.

Clearly, the geology, technology and other conditions are very different in Cook Inlet compared to the Gulf. Yet there have been at least three recorded blow-outs in Cook Inlet alone, and while little oil has spilled from these events, the potential for blow-out related spills remains, especially if drillers target new, deeper reserves with lesser-known formation pressures.

To make matters worse, Cook Inlet is woefully unprepared for a blow-out. Regulatory reforms after the Exxon Valdez required industry to prove the ability to stop a well blow-out. But starting around 2002, state regulators -- under pressure from industry -- began to rollback requirements for relief wells in the event blow-out prevention failed. Relief wells are drilled to intersect the blow-out well, and they inject cements and other heavy materials down hole to quell the blow-out. The three previous blow-outs in Cook Inlet mobilized relief well capacities, and BP is scrambling right now in the Gulf to do the same.

But in Cook Inlet and elsewhere in Alaska, there is now no requirement for industry to publicly prove its capacity to drill a relief well. So, if an oil company opts to pursue the corporate subsidies offered by SB 309, it will only bring one new jack-up drilling rig to Cook Inlet -- not a second one to drill a relief well if needed -- because that would be too expensive.

Yet as we learned with the Exxon Valdez -- and as we're seeing in the Gulf -- the costs of spilled oil are not cheap. Rather, the impacts to fisheries and the families, jobs and communities they support are significant and long term. And once oil hits the water, it's a lose-lose proposition, because even in ideal conditions, industry still can't clean-up spilled oil effectively. It's been over 40 years since Unocal's Platform A blow-out oiled the beaches of Southern California, yet industry's ability to clean-up spilled oil remains outdated and ineffective, especially in the ice and broken ice conditions we find in Alaska.

The Exxon Valdez brought about some much needed reforms, and the BP Gulf disaster will presumably do the same. But as time passes and complacency sets back in, relentless pressure from industry to maximize profits and reduce costs will invariably erode the safeguards common sense and experience show we need. Unless, of course, our politicians and industry leaders finally get serious about responsible energy development. For now, our hearts go out to the people and the communities in the Gulf region.

Bob Shavelson is Executive Director of Cook Inletkeeper, a community-based nonprofit organization formed in 1995 to protect the Cook Inlet watershed and the life it sustains. More information is available at www.inletkeeper.org.



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