By Hal Shepherd
Just before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, basing it’s conclusion that a massive oil spill was “unlikely” in the area, the Department of the Interior decided not to impose a full review of potential environmental impacts of the drilling operation. Now that it is clear that unpreparedness was one of the factors leading to the tragic loss of life and economic and environment impacts from in the Gulf oil blowout, one would think that we would have seen that last of “unlikely to happen” as a prevention strategy.
Not so in Alaska. In fact, even as local communities and fish and wildlife populations attempt to recover from the Gulf spill, the Escopeta Oil Company (which recently transported an exploratory drilling platform to northern Cook Inlet) argued in it’s oil spill and blowout prevention contingency plan that “the circumstances for such an event are unlikely.” Similarly, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently declined to concur with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the resurgence of exploratory oil drilling is “not likely to effect” declining numbers of Beluga whale in Cook Inlet primarily because of the low probability of a large spill. In a letter sent to the Corps last July, NMFS says that while “we may agree that there is a low likelihood of a large or catastrophic oil spill, the Corps has not demonstrated that the effects from such a spill are discountable …”
It was, however, NMFS’ statement that in “light of our experience regarding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we cannot discount oil spill risks without a thorough understanding of those risks and an analysis of oil spill responses capabilities and effectiveness”, that appears to have struck a nerve with Alaska politicians. According to a recent news release from Senator Mark Begich’s office, for example, the senator requested that visiting NOAA Director Jane Lubchenco sit down at a roundtable with Cook Inlet Oil & Gas “Stakeholders” (which, as it turns out, included mostly industry representatives) in Anchorage to discuss “how to streamline the permitting process for Cook Inlet oil and gas rigs, particularly relating to the permits issued by NOAA and required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect Cook Inlet Belugas.”
Alaska politicians, however, are not the only ones who, apparently, missed the “preparedness” discussions after the Gulf incident. In fact, the day after Sen. Begich’s discussion with Lubchenco and Cook Inlet “stake holder,” the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force held their Annual Meeting in Anchorage where the Vice-Chairman of the Deepwater Horizon Incident Specific Preparedness Review, Carlton Moore, cited a report on the Review’s failure to cover what caused the incident to deflect questions about what could have prevented or better controlled the drilling rig blowout. This left more than a few of those of us who attended the meeting, somewhat perplexed about the exact function of the task force and, particularly, the meeting whose theme, somewhat ironically, was “Deep Water Horizon — What Have We Learned?”
Similarly, although, blow out prevention practicalities clearly call for the drilling of a relief well immediately after, or at the same time, as the original well as part of the Best Available Technology (BAT) standard, any discussion of relief wells by Alaska regulatory agencies is noticeably absent. Even though, for example, the definition of “technology” under BAT includes “equipment, supplies, other resources and related practices”, during the 2004 BAT Conference in Anchorage, sponsored by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC), relief wells were not even included in the list of technologies presented. Discounting of relief wells in preventing and controlling spills or blowouts, however, seems contrary to ADEC’s impression of the effectiveness of such strategies, particularly in Cook Inlet. This is best illustrated by the BAT Report which provides: “when all else fails, a relief well, drilled to intersect the blowout well, may be the only option” and in “some instances, the only practical way to control a well blowout, particularly for offshore platforms…, is to drill a relief well.”
Once again, it appears that if we want to prevent a Gulf type oil spill crises in Alaska, we cannot depend solely on the politicians or government agencies. That is why the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society and others have called for ADEC to adopt a rule-making petition that will have public support clarifying that the use of relief wells is part of the BAT in Cook Inlet.
Hal Shepherd is executive director of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society.