DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, efforts to prevent a disaster of a different kind. The oil company Royal Dutch Shell, better known as just Shell, may be drilling several oil wells in the pristine waters off Alaska's north shore this summer. The potential prize is huge, but so is the risk should there be an oil spill in such a remote region. That risk is on everyone's mind in the wake of the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago. Shell is now training hundreds of workers in case they are forced to confront oil in these icy waters.
NPR's Richard Harris joined them in Valdez, Alaska.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY AND SEAGULLS)
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: You couldn't ask for a better day. The sun is out, the water is flat calm, and a windbreaker is enough to keep you cozy. A blue-and-white vessel, the Nanuq, is pulling away from the dock and heading out into open water, just a few miles from where the EXXON Valdez came aground and spilled more than 10 million gallons of oil back in 1989.
Geoff Merrell, Shell's superintendent for Emergency Response in Alaska, is here to observe a program that will train about 200 oil spill responders.
GEOFF MERRELL: We have about a thousand feet of oil-containment boom that we will be deploying.
HARRIS: Anyone who has seen an oil spill response knows that step one is to corral the oil, as best one can, inside a ring of rubbery material.
MERRELL: In this way the oil would be prevented from spreading out over the water's surface in a large geographic area.
HARRIS: Looks like we're starting to see some action here.
MERRELL: Yeah, one of the 34-foot boom towing boats is just off the stern. And we'll have boom deployment over the side here in a minute or so.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BOOM DEPLOYING)
HARRIS: The boom is slowly reeled off a large yellow spool. And as it's dragged across the deck, the crew steps up with giant air hoses to inflate it like an oversized air mattress.
DALE CROY: All stop.
HARRIS: Dale Croy is supervising the operation and radioing the small vessel off the stern, to pull out the boom at just the right speed. He explains that a heavy chain runs along one edge of the boom, so when it slips into the water, the boom will dangle down to make a skirt.
CROY: It rolls off the reel so fast because of the weight of the chain that sometimes you have to stop and then catch up.
HARRIS: Crew members take turns getting a feel for the air hoses. They deploy the first reel, containing 500 feet of this floating boom. They're paying attention to detail, not urgency.
Geoff Merrell stands back on the deck and sizes up the crew.
MERRELL: These are fairly new trainees. In an actual situation, when these would then be seasoned responders, this evolution would happen much more quickly.
HARRIS: So, have you actually deployed boom like this in ice?
MERRELL: I have. And these crews will when we get up into the Arctic.
HARRIS: Presuming there's still floating ice in the area when they get there. You can make it work, he says. But ice can also cut the floating boom if you're not careful. And you don't want to capture too much floating ice inside a boom, if you can help it.
MERRELL: The issue would be more of the ice pushing the boom under the water, which would then release the oil that we had spent all that time trying to contain within.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
HARRIS: As we talk, Merrell looks over my shoulder and watches as the crew pulls out a hacksaw and starts in on a cable attached to the end of the boom.
MERRELL: I'm not happy with what I'm seeing here.
HARRIS: This is not standard procedure. But it resolves the hang-up, and the last of the boom drops off the stern of the ship. It's hard to imagine, standing on this deck on a calm and sunny day, what a real response would look like in the typical high winds of the far northern Beaufort or Chukchi Seas, especially late in the season as ice starts to move back in. The U.S. government has approved Shell's oil spill response plan. But just how good is the state of the art in oil spill cleanup? Roger Rufe, a retired vice admiral in the Coast Guard, fielded that question recently at an event in Washington, D.C.
VICE ADMIRAL ROGER RUFE: It's pretty abysmal. I don't think anybody's really proven they can clean up a spill very effectively in the ice.
HARRIS: Spill response is a last resort, of course. The hope is that Shell will never have a blowout, or if it does lose control of a well, that a device called a blowout preventer will actually work, unlike what happened at the BP well in the Gulf. Or if that fails as well, that they will be able to stem the flow of oil by capping a runaway well.
RUFE: I think the chances of being able to get a cap on something more quickly than what happened in the Gulf is probably much better now than it was then. But once oil is in the water, it's a mess. And we've never proven anywhere in the world, let alone in the ice, that we're very good at picking up more than 3 or 5 or 10 percent of the oil once it's in the water.
HARRIS: And up in the Arctic, that oil would pose a risk for seabirds and the whales, the walruses, the seals and other wildlife that native villagers hunt for food. Back on the Nanuq, Shell's Geoff Merrell hopes that the company's new, $100 million, 300-foot-long vessel will never have to be used for anything more than drills and training. If it is called into action, the company's plan is to confront 95 percent of the oil out in the open water, before it comes ashore. Critics sometimes interpret that as Shell's promising to remove 95 percent of the spilled oil from the water, but Merrell says not so.
MERRELL: Because the on-scene conditions can be so variable, it would be rather of ridiculous of us to make any kind of performance guarantee.
HARRIS: He says clean-up success depends on how thick the oil is, how well trained the crew is, and of course weather and ice conditions. And as for crew training...
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY RUNNING)
HARRIS: ...these new recruits have a lot yet to learn. They only managed to deploy 500 feet of boom today, not the 1,000 feet they'd hoped for. And they muffed their effort to retrieve it. So, as they steam back to the port of Valdez, they leave the boom out in the bay, to be reeled on board another day. Richard Harris, NPR News.