February 7, 2011

US Ill-equipped For Arctic Drilling: Allen

The Coast Guard admiral who led the US response to the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill said today that the US is ill-equipped to respond to a possible major oil spill event in the Arctic.

Retired admiral Thad Allen told reporters this week that only one of the US Coast Guard's three ice breakers is operational and would be available to respond to a disaster off Alaska's northern coast, which is icebound for much of the year.

Fran Ulmer, former Alaska lieutenant governor said that before drilling in the Arctic, the United States must "invest in the Coast Guard. It's not an option; it's a mandatory next step for our country to take,r" eports AFP. Ulmer, was a member of a presidential commission that last month called for more government oversight to prevent a repeat of the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Funding for expensive new icebreakers is unlikely to be high on the list of priorities of Republicans who control the House of Representatives by vowing to slash spending. Yet these same Republicans are likely to push for more drilling off Alaska's oil-rich coast.

The retired admiral highlighted the difficulties that would face authorities responding to an offshore emergency in the Arctic.

Clean-up workers by the hundreds, along with spill investigators, counselors and advisers poured into Louisiana after the Gulf of Mexico disaster, taking over entire coastal towns. The town of Barrow, which is the largest city close to the offshore areas and where some rigs and offshore islands have already been erected, has few facilities to house workers, let alone oil spill response crews or rescuers, "If you have 30 people, you've maxed out the beds," he tells AFP.

Barrow has no de-icing facilities and no hangars for fixed-wing aircraft, which were used extensively during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. "At this point the lack of a forward operating base would be a significant impediment not only to oil spill response but to search and rescue," Allen continued.

Arctic drilling in Alaska would be in shallower water than the British Petroleum well that failed last year, but other challenges including harsh weather, ice floes and the fact that the closest Coast Guard base is hundreds of miles away would make rescue and clean-up operations very difficult, said Marilyn Heijman, director of the Pew Environment Group's offshore energy reform and US Arctic campaigns.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, in December, banned new drilling in the eastern Gulf and the Atlantic until beyond 2017, but approved drilling in the Arctic. Royal Dutch Shell had applied for a permit to drill off the Alaska coast and said on Thursday it was delaying starting exploration because it has been unable to obtain permits.

Environmental groups praised the delay but criticism from Alaska politicians like Republican Governor Sean Parnell said the delay was an example of the "federal government dragging its feet, killing jobs and making us even more reliant on oil from the Middle East and elsewhere," AFP reports. Alaska Democratic Senator Mark Begich also railed at the government, saying it has "taken virtually every opportunity to block responsible development of Alaska's resources.


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