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Arctic drilling opponents gain momentum from Gulf oil spill

Exploratory drilling is scheduled for July in the waters off Alaska's northern shore. Environmental groups, reeling from the Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill, are fighting to put those plans on hold.

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Shell's Smith, however, notes that most of those ships – including an empty oil tanker – are there to swoop in and gather up oil should any spill occur. He cites backup ships for that group – and "ice rated booms" that could keep oil from spreading. Ice has been found to be a "natural barrier" to spreading oil – and the cold water would keep oil intact and make it easier to burn, if necessary.

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"We're prepared for the worst," he says, noting that the extreme subsurface pressure that produced the blowout in the 5,000-foot-deep Gulf is much less likely in the relatively shallow arctic seas, which are just 130 to 150 feet deep.

But environmentalists say the MMS's failure to require the company to explain what it would do in case of a blowout shows that’s not true. In icy conditions, oil would get under the ice making it impossible to clean up, they say.

"The bottom line is there's no effective way to clean up a spill in the arctic - and broken ice just aggravates the situation," says Pamela Miller, arctic program director at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, an environmental group in Fairbanks. "Here we have a pristine area so important to natives, marine mammals, whales – and it hasn't been assessed for what to do in the event of a major blowout."

If a blowout occurred at the end of the season when pack ice was forming and the drill rig sank - as happened in the gulf - another rig would not be available to drill a relief well until the following season, she says.

On Wednesday, House and Senate Democrats unveiled legislation to block new offshore oil exploration nationwide until Gulf of Mexico oil spill investigations are complete, along with a report on ways to prevent future accidents.

"An immediate moratorium is the only way to go," Rep. Kenrick Meek (D) of Florida said. Sen. Bill Nelson of Fla. pronounced President Obama's offshore drilling plan "dead on arrival" and threatened a filibuster when it came up.

Related:

Gulf oil spill: Why booms, in short supply, may not save the day

Oil spill: Gulf of Mexico disaster holds big liabilities for BP

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