ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The grounding of a petroleum drilling ship on a remote Alaska island has refueled the debate about oil exploration in the U.S. Arctic Ocean, where critics for years have said the conditions are too harsh and the stakes too high to allow dangerous industrial development.
The drilling sites are 1,000 miles from Coast Guard resources, and environmentalists argue offshore drilling in the Arctic's fragile ecosystem is too risky. So when a Royal Dutch Shell PLC ship went aground on New Year's Eve off an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska, they pounced - saying the incident foreshadowed what will happen north of the Bering Strait if drilling is allowed.
For oil giant Shell, which leads the way in drilling in the frontier waters of the U.S. Arctic, a spokesman said the incident will be a learning experience in the company's years-long effort to draw oil from beneath the ocean floor, which it maintains it can do safely. Though no wells yet exist, Shell has invested billions of dollars gearing up for drilling in the Beaufort and the Chukchi seas, off Alaska's north and northwest coasts.
The potential bounty is high: The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 26.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas exist in Arctic waters.
Environmentalists note the Beaufort and Chukchi seas are some of the world's wildest and remotest ecosystems. They're also some of the most fragile, supporting polar bears, the ice seals they feed on, walruses, endangered whales and other marine mammals that Alaska Natives depend on for their subsistence culture.
"The Arctic is just far different than the Gulf of Alaska or even other places on Earth," said Marilyn Heiman, U.S. Arctic director for the Pew Environment Group.
Shell in 2008 spent $2.1 billion on Chukchi Sea leases and estimates it has spent a total of nearly $5 billion on drilling efforts there and in the Beaufort. Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said the company has a long, successful history of working offshore in Alaska and is confident it can build another multidecade business in the Arctic.
"Our success here is not by accident," Smith said. "We know how to work in regions like this. Having said that, when flawless execution does not happen, you learn from it, and we will."
The drill ship that operated in the Beaufort Sea, the Kulluk, a circular barge with a funnel-shaped hull and no propulsion system, ran ashore Monday on Sitkalidak Island, which is near the larger Kodiak Island in the gulf.
The ship had left Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands under tow behind the 360-foot anchor handler Aiviq on Dec. 22. It was making its way to a Pacific Northwest shipyard for maintenance and upgrades when it ran into a vicious storm.
The tow line snapped on Dec. 27. Shell vessels and the Coast Guard reattached tow lines at least four times. High winds and seas that approached 50 feet frustrated efforts to control the rig, and it ran ashore. Shell, the drill ship operators, transit experts and the Coast Guard are planning the salvage operation.
The state of Alaska has been an enthusiastic supporter of Arctic offshore drilling. More than 90 percent of its general fund revenue comes from oil earnings. But the trans-Alaska pipeline has been running at less than one-third capacity as reserves diminish in North Slope fields. State officials see Arctic offshore drilling as a way to replenish the trans-Alaska pipeline while keeping the state economy vital.