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As many people know, the BP oil rig disaster last April in the Gulf of Mexico reignited the debate over offshore oil drilling, and not just in the Gulf. Still, the oil giant Shell has been pushing for permission to drill for oil off the north coast of Alaska. They've been trying that for years. Lawsuits have forced the company to scale back its drilling plans. Shell still wants to drill one exploratory well next summer. But even that proposal is facing stiff opposition, as NPR's Jeff Brady reports.
JEFF BRADY: We're on a small propeller plane, flying about 1,000 miles from Anchorage down over the Aleutian Islands to Dutch Harbor. That's where Shell has gathered equipment, preparing for the day the company's allowed to drill in the Arctic.
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BRADY: Landings in Dutch Harbor can be harrowing, and ours was no exception. But this is where you have to go if you want to see the millions of dollars worth of equipment Shell has standing by. It's stored here during the winter because much of the Arctic is iced over right now. The first thing Shell wants to show off is a 300-foot-long blue and white ship.
Mr. GEOFF MERRELL (Emergency Response Coordinator, Shell Oil): Well, we're onboard the deck of the Nanuq.
BRADY: That's Geoff Merrell. He's Shell's Emergency Response Coordinator in Alaska. If there's an oil spill, it's his job to have a response plan ready and the Nanuq is a big part of that.
Mr. MERRELL: She's a wonderful vessel, purpose built for Shell and our Alaska Arctic exploration program.
BRADY: Merrell says the Nanuq can store 12,000 barrels of recovered oil. There are a number of tools on board to collect crude from the water - one that looks like a thick feather boa.
Mr. MERRELL: And it's connected to a roller and a squeegee system. There's not a lot that can go wrong with these, yet at the same time they're very effective in removing pockets of oil in and amongst ice flows.
BRADY: Merrell also points to a huge roll of containment boom and a nearby skimmer. He says this vessel could respond to a spill within one hour. And if it became necessary to drill a relief well, another rig would be standing by to do it.
Shell has a good safety record, but the Deepwater Horizon memory is fresh, and environmental groups oppose the company's drilling plan. Michael LeVine is a lawyer with the group Oceana.
Mr. MICHAEL LEVINE (Lawyer, Oceana): You might be able to run out and drill a well or two wells or three wells without having what happened in the Gulf of Mexico happen in the Arctic, but is that a risk that you want to take?
BRADY: Among groups like LeVine's, most of the concern is less about this one exploratory well and more about the many wells that could follow if oil is discovered. LeVine says scientists need to do more research in the Arctic before drilling begins to know what effects it might have on the ocean.
Mr. LEVINE: We don't even know what animals are in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in total, let alone how they interact, what they eat and at what times of year.
BRADY: While LeVine thinks�not enough preparations have been made for drilling, Shell's vice president for Alaska, Pete Slaiby, says his company has been working on this for a long time.
Mr. PETE SLAIBY (Shell Oil Company): Oh, I think the project's ready for prime time, and it's probably been ready for a few years.
BRADY: Slaiby says Shell started drilling in the Beaufort and the Chukchi Seas back in the 1960s. He says the industry learned important lessons from the Deepwater Horizon accident - information about containing well blowouts and spills that could be applied to work in the Arctic.
Mr. SLAIBY: These wells have very, very different risk profiles. They're in shallow water, pressure a third of what we see in deep-water Gulf of Mexico.
BRADY: And you can be sure, Slaiby says, the first well drilled is going to be under a lot of scrutiny. The country's top regulator, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management director Michael Bromwich, echoes that point.
Mr. MICHAEL BROMWICH (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement): We don't have a lot of activity in the Arctic and so we are able to, even with limited manpower, make sure that we will be providing 24/7 regulatory oversight over the drilling of this well, if we make the decision to approve the application.
BRADY: There's another group opposed to Shell's drilling plan in the Arctic -some of the native communities on the North Slope who hunt whales for food. Dora Leavitt is from the village of Nuiqsut. She says drilling makes whales skittish, then hunters have to travel further out on the ocean to find them. That can be dangerous in 20 foot boats, especially for Leavitt's sons.
Ms. DORA LEAVITT: Now, my 10-year-old, it's time for him to go and learn. And I'm concerned for them because, you know, they're going to be going out with their dad and it's, you know, I want them to be safe.
BRADY: Officials with Shell says they're still optimistic the company will be able to drill the exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea this summer. But for that to happen, the remaining regulatory hurdles will have to be cleared soon.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
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