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Shell defends Alaska offshore drilling plans on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON — Shell Oil, hoping to put a vast distance between the oil gushing from a British Petroleum rig into the Gulf of Mexico and its own pending Arctic project, sent a top executive and engineer to Capitol Hill this week to persuade decision makers that the company still be allowed to drill exploratory wells off Alaska's northern coast.

The company's lobbying came even as the Obama administration Thursday canceled planned offshore leases in Virginia and environmental groups went to court to delay the Dutch oil giant's plans to drill exploratory wells this summer in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

The aim, said Shell's Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith, is to reassure regulators and stakeholders that the company "can operate safely and responsibility here in Alaska," especially in light of the shifting political winds following the April 20 explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that left 11 dead and 210,000 gallons of oil leaking each day from the downed BP rig.

As the company has made the rounds on Capitol Hill, it's been emphasizing the technical differences in drilling in 200 or less feet of water and the 5,000-foot-deep Gulf operations.

"We think it's an important contrast to highlight the difference in drilling regimes in Alaska and the deepwater Gulf of Mexico," Smith said. "Shell is a pioneer also in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, so I don't mean to disparage that as an unsafe drilling regime at all, but they're just different."

The company's oil response experts joined the vice president of the Alaska operation, Pete Slaiby, and one of their top engineers, Charlie Williams. The Shell team met with staffers who work on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. They didn't meet with Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska or his staff, or that of Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

Smith couldn't confirm whether anyone with Shell met with officials within the White House or the Interior Department; however, the company has met with officials with the Minerals Management Service's Alaska office, he said.

The events in the Gulf of Mexico have given Shell reason to "double and triple check what we already believe is a very robust drilling plan to see if we can make it better," Smith said.

Shell in 2008 spent $2.1 billion on the Arctic leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service estimates that the two Arctic seas hold up to 19 billion barrels of oil and up to 74 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making their resource potential comparable to the known oil and gas from the North Slope's onshore fields.

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