Against the backdrop of Alaska’s snow-topped Chugach Mountains and in the same waters that were spoiled by the Exxon Valdez oil spill more than two decades ago, Shell Oil Co. has been training recruits in skills it hopes they never have to use.
The company has put scores of people through oil spill response training in the Valdez port, ahead of expected drilling in Arctic waters north of Alaska. If regulators approve the plans, Shell anticipates drilling up to five wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas this summer.
The company’s recruits – mostly men and mostly longtime Alaskans – spent weeks learning how to deploy inflatable booms to corral floating crude and then suck it up with skimmers. They practiced on the same ships that Shell plans to station around its drilling operations in case something goes wrong.
Steven O’Connor, an Inupiat who lives in Anchorage, said he signed up for the job to protect the environment and wildlife valued by his family.
“It’s my backyard,” O’Connor said, noting that his family is from Barrow, the northernmost point in Alaska, near Shell’s proposed drilling.
“I go fishing and hunting everywhere,” O’Connor said. “I want to make sure it stays clean.”
Shell’s flotilla includes the Nanuq and Aiviq, two ice-class oil recovery and supply ships that will carry six smaller oil spill response boats on board. There also are barges and tugboats to push them along. The vessels are outfitted with equipment for tackling floating oil in an emergency – down to the Tyvek suits that responders would wear while handling the crude.
“In the Arctic, you’ve got to bring it with you if you think you’re going to need it,” said Geoff Merrell, superintendent of emergency response for Shell Alaska, part of Houston-based Shell Oil Co.