ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Better ice forecasting in the Alaska Arctic. More Coast Guard resources. More jobs for North Slope residents. A share of oil revenue for Alaska. Streamlined permits and regulation.
Those are some of the ideas presented Thursday to a U.S. Senate panel holding a field hearing in Anchorage on what was learned from this year's offshore drilling by Royal Dutch Shell in the Alaska Arctic.
The overflow crowd also heard specifics on what happened to a Shell oil spill response system damaged during testing.
With only weeks to go before Shell Alaska wraps up its first exploratory drilling offshore Alaska in two decades, key players told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that the work went well and Shell has done an exemplary job despite some glitches and setbacks.
But they worry about what will follow.
"It's no longer a question of if the Arctic will be developed. It's how it will be developed," U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said in opening the hearing, which he chaired.
While he was the sole U.S. senator there, the meeting room on the University of Alaska campus overflowed with more than 100 people. Top government officials, Alaska Native leaders and the head of Shell Alaska all testified.
Pete Slaiby, Shell's vice president for Alaska, told Begich that Shell believes Alaska's offshore Arctic region "likely holds world class volumes of oil and gas."
If Shell's exploratory work gets to production, tens of thousands of jobs will be created and vast quantities of additional oil will move down the trans-Alaska Pipeline.
But Shell couldn't attempt to reach oil-bearing zones this year because of complications with its oil spill containment barge, the Arctic Challenger.
That was disappointing, Slaiby said.
HOW DOME WAS DAMAGED
The barge-based containment system, including a massive dome that would be lowered over an out-of-control well, is the first of its kind and was on fast track for completion, Slaiby said. It only became part of Shell's required oil spill response after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.
Shell and Superior Energy Services, the contractor that owns and will operate the 38-year-old retrofitted barge, investigated how the dome was damaged during testing Sept. 15 off the coast of Washington state.
"Our investigation determined that a faulty electrical connection associated with one of the valves caused the valve to open, which caused the rapid descent and ultimate damage to the dome," Slaiby told Begich.
Safety tethers prevented the dome from hitting bottom, he said. The dome was nowhere near the side of the barge and didn't bang against it or hit anything else, Slaiby told reporters during a break in the hearing.
"But buoyancy chambers were damaged," he said.
During the rapid descent, the water pressure "deformed the side of the dome itself," he said. Shell and Superior are working together to improve the technical aspects of the system as well as procedures.
"The design concept, however, is solid," Slaiby said in the hearing.
The oil spill containment barge is the fourth line of defense, he said. Crews would first try to stop a blowout with drilling mud, then turn to a blowout preventer already in place, then a capping stack, a special blowout preventer like what eventually stopped the oil from flowing from the Deepwater Horizon blowout.
COAST GUARD IMPRESSED
Only after all that would the dome be lowered down, connected by hose to a mini-oil production system on the barge.