Report challenges offshore drilling plans in Arctic

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Thu Nov 11, 2010 12:24pm EST

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Opening the Arctic Ocean to offshore oil development, where several energy companies are pressing to drill, poses risks of devastating spills complicated by harsh weather and months of winter darkness, a new report said on Wednesday.

The report, from the Pew Environment Group, foresees catastrophic damage from a spill in the Arctic, where escaped crude could linger for decades beneath the ice pack and crucial habitat for animals already under stress from climate change, such as polar bears, could be ruined.

The report, written by consultants and started prior to BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, comes as several companies are positioning to convert federal Arctic waters off Alaska into a major new oil-producing basin.

Current government policies vastly underestimate spill risks and overestimate present cleanup capabilities, the report said. There is, for now, no proven technology to clean up spilled oil in icy Arctic waters, the report said.

Winter darkness, extreme cold and other harsh conditions of the region could delay the response to an oil spill by several months, the study said.

"We are not prepared right now to respond to an oil spill if one should occur," said Marilyn Heiman, U.S. Arctic program director for the Pew Environment Group.

The most ambitious company looking at offshore sites in Alaska is Royal Dutch Shell, which is seeking to start drilling next year. Shell has spent about $3.5 billion in recent years on its Arctic offshore program, mostly to acquire leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off north and northwestern Alaska.

But the Pew report says big changes in regulations and research and a major upgrade in available equipment and personnel are needed before drilling could be considered safe.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the U.S. incident commander for the BP oil spill, said the Pew report makes valid points about response limitations in the Arctic.

Traditional oil-spill containment equipment used elsewhere could fail in the Arctic, said Allen, who reviewed the report. "You can't boom an oil spill when the water's frozen," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Other challenges are posed by geography and remoteness. The nearest major port is about 1,000 miles away, in Dutch Harbor, and the U.S. Coast Guard lacks a year-round presence in the Arctic, Allen said.

"You have the tyranny of distance. You have the lack of infrastructure," he said.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan)

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