If oil in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea is tapped, there is a 75 percent chance of at least one large oil spill occurring.

That’s the short version of a government report that environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice and Ocean Conservancy have used to fight Shell’s request to search for oil in the region.

The oil industry and Alaska’s top senator, Lisa Murkowski (R), have their own take on the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s analysis: the 75 percent figure is more blown out than Deepwater Horizon.

Conflicting interpretations and attention to the issue from media and stakeholders led BOEM, an agency within the Department of the Interior, to issue a fact sheet – “The 75-percent figure: What does it mean?” – last month. Not that anyone’s backing down.

“Interior’s own assessment finds a 75 percent chance of a major oil spill should drilling under existing leases in the Chukchi Sea proceed,” Franz Matzner, a director at NRDC, said during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on energy supply legislation Tuesday. “And in the likely event of a spill, none of the three primary oil spill response methods…have been proven effective in harsh Arctic conditions.”

Murkowski, who chairs the committee, sought to add context to Matzner’s remarks.

She said BOEM’s assessment assumed 500 wells had been producing 4.3 billion barrels of oil over the course of 77 years. That means 0.00002 percent of the oil produced might be spilled through the year 2092, while 99.99998 percent would be safely delivered, according to Murkowski.

“I want to make sure that when we talk about the figures that we give full definition to where those numbers came from,” Murkowski said.

Robert Dillon, a spokesman for the Senate Energy Committee, said in an email that there’s been a lot of misinformation about what BOEM has said about the safety of drilling off the coast of Alaska, and that BOEM’s fact sheet sets the record straight.

“Some 35 wells have been drilled in Alaska’s Arctic waters since the 1980s,” Dillon wrote. “But you wouldn’t know that by listening to the opponents of oil production who claim Arctic drilling can’t be done safely. Hogwash.”

BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper’s interpretation of the facts seems to support Dillon and Murkowski’s position.

“We’re legally required to take a look at the chance of an oil spill, and so we project out full deployment, or full development of those resources,” Ross Hopper said in an interview. “Over the 77-year time horizon there is a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill.”

“But large is a term of art,” Ross Hopper continued, “being defined as anything more than 1,000 barrels of oil.” She said that the spills modeled by BOEM are very unlikely to mirror catastrophic historical events such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which spilled more than 250,000 barrels of oil, or the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico that resulted in more than 3 million barrels spilled.

BOEM predicted one “large” oil spill over 77 years if 500 wells were drilled for oil. But even if two spills occurred during that time period, “we still found that the environmental impact would be low enough that it justified allowing for drilling,” Ross Hopper said.

Under the terms of its lease, Shell can conduct exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea through 2020. But any oil production is at least a decade away. For the exploration phase, Ross Hopper said that an oil spill was “extremely unlikely.”

Ross Hopper was appointed by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Jan.5, 2015.

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