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Alaskans watch Gulf spill with interest, comparisons

Posted: Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Alaskans are watching the battle to halt and contain the Gulf of Mexico oil spill with keen interest.

Oil and gas well blowouts have happened in Alaska, both onshore and offshore, although nothing like what's being experienced in the Gulf.

Can we learn anything? Are we different? Are we better protected and prepared?

Yes to all three of those, state officials and an industry watchdog group say.

That doesn't mean Alaska's coastal communities and fisheries are any less vulnerable than the Gulf's. It does mean, however, that we learned some things from our own spill disaster, the Exxon Valdez grounding in Prince William Sound in 1989.

That's the assessment of Larry Dietrick, director of the state's Division of Spill Prepardness and Prevention. Stan Jones, Director of Administration and External Affairs of the industry watch dog group Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, agrees.

Because of the 1989 spill, Alaska has the nation's toughest rules on oil spill prevention and preparedness, Dietrick said.

This doesn't mean that had Alaska's requirements been in place in the Gulf of Mexico, the undersea blowout couldn't have happened, or the spill's consequences any less severe.

But one independent expert who has examined the Gulf of Mexico spill contingency plans, former University of Alaska Professor Rick Steiner, said Alaska's requirements are more detailed and appear to have more teeth. This doesn't mean that accidents can't happen, and plans that are prepared must be followed, Steiner said.

Steiner is now working as a consultant to environmental groups on the Gulf spill.

However, provisions in the federal coastal management law do allow the state to extend its more stringent spill requirements to the federal outer continental shelf areas around Alaska that are managed by the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

That means Shell's planned operations in the Alaska offshore must adhere to the state's standards, which are stricter than those applied by the federal government in the federally managed areas of the Gulf of Mexico, Dietrick said.

Plan for disaster

The lynchpin of Alaska's spill rules is the requirement in state law for an oil and gas operator -- of a tanker or an oil well -- to have a contingency plan that can demonstrate the ability to clean up a 300,000 barrel spill from a tanker in 72 hours and 5,500 barrels per day from an oil well. For the 72-hour period, the total for exploration wells would be 16,500 barrels, Dietrick said.

These are hard numbers, and the plans must have details and contracts with financial commitments behind them, Dietrick said. Contracts must be with support firms or response cooperatives that have been formed, and which have spill containment and cleanup equipment on hand, he said.

The state must approve the contingency plan, and that approval is needed before drilling can start or a vessel can enter or operate in Alaska waters, Dietrick said.

State spill requirements also apply to fuel barges and onshore tank farms.

For tankers, it's no coincidence that 300,000 barrels is a bit more than what leaked from the grounded Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989, and that 72 hours coincides with the three days that critics say was wasted in 1989 because the industry spill response was so disorganized.

There were three days of calm weather that existed after the spill, during which the oil sat in a big, flat pancake around the tankers and Bligh Reef and could have been contained, with much of it recovered, Dietick said.

But at the time, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. didn't have its act together (some of the containment gear was buried under snow in Valdez) and the window of opportunity closed when bad weather hit and the oil was spread across the Sound.

Alyeska had primary spill cleanup responsibility in Prince William Sound in 1989. It still does.

The state's first goal is a strong spill prevention program to minimize the chance of accidents and spills, Dietrick said. But if they happen, and from time to time they will, responders must act quickly to minimize the damage.

"Initial containment is critical. You've got to get at it before it spreads," he said.

Had Alyeska's current tanker escort and fishing vessel response program been in effect in 1989, they would have been on the scene almost immediately, taking maximum advantage of the good weather.

The escort vessels with spill equipment would have been nearby and fishing vessels to handle containment boom would been been at Bligh Reef within hours (some fishing vessels under contract with Alyeska are on quick-response contracts).

Jones said there will always be questions as to whether industry can actually succeed in a real event, but having equipment and people nearby will allow some of the plan to be accomplished.

Assistance from local fishermen is an important part of the current response plan in Prince William Sound, Jones said. Alyeska Pipeline has 300 vessels under contract, some with a six-hour response requirement. Periodic drills are held with the fishing vessel operators, as well.

Sound to Gulf

There are big differences but also some similaries between the Gulf of Mexico and Prince William Sound spills, Jones said. One difference between the two is that the Gulf spill involves a deep sea well blowout that is releasing a large amount of oil over time, where Prince William Sound involved a tanker accident where a large oil volume was released almost immediately.

Another difference is that the Gulf oil was released and dispersed over a huge area of ocean, although some of it is affecting shorelines.

The similarities are that coastal communities and large fisheries in both regions were affected.

Jones said scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that about 14 percent of the 11 million gallons spilled in 1989 were recovered through mechanical recovery means such as use of skimmers.

Dietrick said he and other state officials are keenly interested in how much oil is being recovered in the Gulf by skimmers and other mechanical means, and the success of burning some of the oil.

Some burns have been conducted but it is too early to assess their success.

Dietrick said Alaska's program has an emphasis on mechanical cleanup, but tests have been conducted looking into burning in the Arctic.

"We've been working since the 1970s on developing things like fireproof booms and ignition devices, and actual tests of burning involving oil that was intentionally spilled were carried out off Norway in recent years," he said.

State officials are also watching the widespread use of dispersants with interest, not only the effectiveness but the potential environmental consequences. The Gulf response involves one of the world's largest applications of dispersants in a spill, and a lot can be learned from it.

Dispersants are one tool that could be available in Alaska, along with burning. Jones said the PWS Citizens' Advisory Council opposes the use of dispersants because of the unknown long-term effects.

Arctic rules

Would Alaska's strict requirements have made a difference in the Gulf of Mexico? Probably not, given the scale and circumstances.

But having state instead of federal requirements apply to Shell's or any other OCS exploration off Alaska's coasts is of crucial importance, Dietrick said.

If Shell is eventually allowed to drill -- the company's 2010 exploration program is on hold because of President Barack Obama's temporary moratorium on drilling -- the company will have spill response vessels and equipment nearby. The state's approval on the plan was needed.

Critics of Arctic drilling point to the remoteness of the region and distance from support centers. Proponents cite major differences between the Arctic and Gulf of Mexico, including the level of regulation and government oversight that has been in place.

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich said one key difference is water depths of 100 feet to 150 feet in areas where Shell wants to drill, compared to about 5,000 feet where BP was drilling in the Gulf.

Another difference, Begich said in a May 27 briefing, was the high reservoir pressures in the Gulf compared with what Shell and other explorers expect in the Arctic offshore.

Dietrick said that under many scenarios, the presence of ice in the Arctic is an advantage because in "broken ice" conditions, where there is open water and ice, the ice acts as a barrier to the spread of oil, helping keep it in pockets where skimmers and burning can be used to their greatest effectiveness.

Dietrick said the key to effective burning, which can remove almost all of the oil, is being able to ignite it while it is in a thick layer and corralled with fireproof boom or ice, as well as to ignite it quickly while there are still volatile compounds that will burn.

If the ignition is delayed, the oil can degrade, making ignition difficult or impossible.

In the Norway tests, "we found out that when oil is released in broken ice, the cold retards evaporation of the volatile light ends of the oil, so it actually extends the window of opportunity for burning to as along as 72 hours, we believe," Dietrick said.

The Norway tests also showed that cold was not a factor in the ability to ignite the oil, and that the heat on the surface does not seem to warm the water below or affect fish, he said.

Begich said Shell's Arctic operations also have been subject to a much more thorough review by government agencies than was evidentally the case in the Gulf of Mexico.

All Arctic sales and permits have been litigated and several have been through the courts, actions that have focused scrutiny on the company's plans.

Also other federal agencies, in particular the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have been engaged in review of Shell's plans along with the U.S. Minerals Management Agency, Begich said.

Steiner said he examined the federal contingency plan for the Deepwater Horizon and was struck by several things. First, the plan was a specific plan for the drilling vessel itself but a generic-type plan that linked to a regional Gulf of Mexico spill plan prepared by BP under MMS requirements.

The regional plan has some similarities to Alaska's requirements in that response contractors must be under contract and equipment lists noted, he said. There is also a requirement that equipment be available to contain and clean up a spill of 450,000 barrels per day.

A deficiency in the plan is that it did not envision, or cite preparations for, an undersea blowout of the magnitude that has occurred, Steiner said.

Shell's plan for the Alaskan Arctic offshore is much more detailed, he said.

"It's actually one of the best contingency plans I've reviewed," Steiner said.

Still, the harsh physical conditions of the Arctic, and the remoteness of the region, lead Steiner to believe the Arctic offshore drilling shouldn't be allowed.



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