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Coast Guard In Arctic Waters: Team Prepares For Expanded Role As Melting Ice Opens Region

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COAST GUARD ARCTIC
Ships bringing oil drilling equipment to Alaska pass through Seattle’s Elliott Bay on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. | AP File

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The Coast Guard is ready for expanded activity in Arctic waters, including petroleum exploration, Commandant Robert Papp told a U.S. Senate subcommittee Monday, even though the nearest agency base is more than 750 miles southeast of the Bering Strait, on Kodiak Island.

"For right now, we are well prepared, because like we always do traditionally, we have multi-mission assets that we can deploy, that are very capable, and that are sufficient for the level of human activity that's going on this summer and perhaps for the next three or four summers," Papp told a U.S. Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., conducted the hearing in a hangar of Air Station Kodiak at the request of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, with the intent of discussing Coast Guard needs as melting summer sea ice opens more of the Arctic to cargo vessels, ecotourism and possibly commercial fishing.

Landrieu said climate models indicate the Arctic Ocean could be free of summer ice after 2030.

"This is an extraordinary change on our planet and we must be ready for it," she said.

Landrieu asked whether the Coast Guard was prepared if something went terribly wrong with petroleum drilling, as happened in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded.

Shell Oil hopes to drill exploratory wells this summer in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast and the Beaufort Sea off the state's north coast. Landrieu said the gulf spill drew a response of 47,000 personnel and 7,000 vessels and she didn't see those kinds of assets at the Kodiak base if Shell's response measures were insufficient.

"The Coast Guard is it," she said.

In response, Papp said he had faith in Shell's preparations.

"I have to say I'm impressed with the amount of effort, work, and commitment of resources Shell has done," he said.

The Deepwater Horizon rig was by itself, Papp said. Shell will have 22 spill response vessels and a containment apparatus staged near Arctic Ocean drilling sites.

"They will have everything in place, ready to go, an overabundance of caution in case something happens," he said.

Papp said the comparison between the Gulf of Mexico and Shell's proposed Alaska wells as a comparison of apples to oranges, to a certain extent. The Alaska wells will be drilled in water up to 150 feet deep, compared to 5,000 in the gulf, and pressure in the petroleum reservoirs will be far less.

"But even saying that, we're looking at the worst case discharge possibility and I think Shell has well prepared for that," he said.

One containment vessel remains to be certified, he said.

Papp said the agency is conducting summer operations in Arctic waters, getting to know the region, testing equipment, working with residents of coastal villages. The information will be used to plan a long-range Arctic strategy.

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