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US not ready to respond to Arctic oil spills: Coast Guard chief

Highlights

The top officer of the US Coast Guard said Wednesday that the governmentis not prepared to respond to an oil spill in Arctic waters if a drillingcompany fails to control its own well.

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Admiral Robert Papp, the agency's commandant, told the Senate Committeeon Commerce, Science and Transportation that the government had plenty ofresources stationed near the Gulf of Mexico last year and could quicklydispatch communication systems, helicopters and other equipment to BP'srunaway Macondo well.

"If this were to happen off the North Slope of Alaska, we'd havenothing," said Admiral Robert Papp, the agency's commandant. "We're startingfrom ground zero today."

Shell has applied for permits to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufortand Chukchi Seas next summer. The seafloor sits under 120 to 140 feet ofwater, compared with Macondo that sat below more than 5,000 feet of water.

Vice President Peter Slaiby told the Senate committee that Shell wouldbeat the federal requirement for deploying response vessels within an hour ofspills.

"Shell would not be working in the Arctic had we believed there wassomething, an event we could not control," he said. "We simply would not bethere. I believe we have the best oil-spill response plan anywhere in theworld.

Slaiby said crews would install two sets of shearing rams in blowoutpreventers and inspect the devices weekly. Because of the shallower depths,he said, divers could respond to problems on the seafloor in addition toremotely operated vehicles.

Papp said drillers have the lead role in responding to accidents, as BPdid after Macondo, but the government must get ready to support them.

"Although private industry may assert they're adequately prepared torespond to a spill, we must also determine what response capability our CoastGuard and nation needs so we can mount an adequate response as explorationadvances towards production," he said.

The remoteness of the Arctic would pose other major challenges for oilspill responders, Papp said.

"One of the things that we learned from Deepwater Horizon is if youdon't think through what is the worst-possible case, it's difficult for youto plan on how much equipment you'll need," he said. "We had to turn on theoil boom manufacturers around the world to supply us. We had to employthousands of fishing boats to go out there and do skimming operations.

"None of that exists up on the North Slope. We have zero to operate withat present, so now's the time to start thinking that through."

Senator Mark Begich, Democrat-Alaska, said Shell and other drillerswould not get permits to start exploration unless the US Bureau of OceanEnergy Management, Regulation and Enforcement deemed their spill-responseplans adequate.

Papp agreed and said the Coast Guard was working with BOEM to ensurethat those plans measure up to the potential risks.

"We will be joined at the hip as we approach these new drilling optionsup in the Arctic," he said.

--Meghan Gordon, meghan_gordon@platts.com