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Enviros Make False Oil Spill Claims To Protest Arctic Drilling

Environmentalists opposed to drilling for oil in the Arctic have been claiming the federal government estimates there is a 75 percent chance of a major oil spill occurring. Don’t believe it, because it’s not true.

The Department of the Interior announced Monday it was giving Royal Dutch Shell permission to drill in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northern coast. Environmentalists at the Natural Resources Defense Council were outraged and are claiming a government report says drilling in the Arctic “would likely cause a major oil spill” that would kill “polar bears and ringed seal pups… Pacific brant, murres, puffins, and bowhead whales.”

Dept. of the Interior says there’s a 75% chance of a major oil spill in the Arctic — & willing to take that chance. http://t.co/CK4JNhIkNK

— NRDC (@NRDC) May 12, 2015

A frightening figure, but one that is very misleading. The 75 percent chance of a major oil spill comes from a February 2015 Bureau of Ocean Energy Management report saying that “there is a 75% chance of one or more large spills occurring over the 77 years of the Scenario, and a 25% chance of no spills occurring.”

The figure was paraded around by environmental groups as a “smoking gun” for why the Obama administration should ban Arctic drilling. But the BOEM has fired back against such claims, arguing its report does not actually mean there’s a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill.

BOEM explains that “the 75-percent chance figure does not apply to plans of any particular operator; it applies to a hypothetical long-term exploration and production scenario created by BOEM analysts… over the full life of all leases issued in the Chukchi Sea.”

So, basically BOEM creates a hypothetical scenario based on “eight production platforms with more than 500 wells producing 4.3 billion barrels of oil over the course of 77 years.” And from that, BOEM’s model showed a 75 percent chance of one major oil spill — a spill over 1,000 barrels — occurring over the course of 77 years.

To be cautious, however, and not underestimate the chance of a major spill (to better mirror the White House’s stance on drilling), BOEM was even generous and raised its major spill estimates to two over 77 years.

But remember, these estimates are based on a hypothetical scenario of eight oil rigs in the production phase — Shell only has one rig that will be exploring the oil and gas potential of the Arctic seas, not drilling to extract large amounts of oil and gas.

BOEM explains that “the data suggest that a large spill in the exploration phase is very unlikely. In the exploration phase, wells are drilled to discover the location of oil or natural gas.”

“In the production phase, wells are drilled to extract the oil or gas from beneath the seabed,” according to BOEM. “Based on OCS historical data, no large spills are assumed to occur during the exploration phase of oil and gas activities.”

Here’s another interesting piece of information. The BOEM says that if “over 15,000 exploration wells drilled on the OCS from 1971-2010, no crude oil spills ≥1,000 bbl have occurred, other than the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) incident. The DWH falls within a subset of large spills referred to as “very large oil spills” (VLOS), which is defined as spills greater than 150,000 bbl, and is considered a low-probability, high-impact event.”

“In other words, a spill of this volume is highly unlikely to occur during any activity phase, but if one did occur (as the DWH), the impacts would be substantial.”

Environmentalists also claimed that “[t]here would probably also be hundreds of additional smaller oil spills.”

But once again, this statement is more hype than reality. BOEM’s report does warn that small oil spills — less than 1,000 barrels — are known to occur during the exploration phase, but adds that the “majority of small spills would be contained on a vessel or platform, and refined fuel spills that reach the water would evaporate and disperse within hours to a few days.”

“Further, those spills reaching the water may be contained by booms or absorbent pads,” BOEM noted. “Spills during Exploration are expected to be small and consist of refined oils because crude and condensate oils would not be produced during exploration.”

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