Two years after an Arctic drilling barge went dangerously adrift in Alaskan waters, the Obama administration moved Friday to impose stringent safety standards on future offshore oil and gas exploration along the state’s northern coastline.
The Interior Department unveiled proposed rules that officials said would help guard against environment damage while allowing controlled access to off-shore fields estimated to contain billions of barrels of oil as well as immense reserves of natural gas.
The rules, if given final approval, would require energy companies to clear a number of Arctic-specific safety hurdles before obtaining approval to drill in northern Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The White House last month unveiled plans to allow off-shore oil and gas leasing in both waterways, in what officials called an attempt to strike a balance between protecting an environmentally fragile region and maintaining energy independence.
“As we make the vast majority of the Arctic oceans offshore Alaska available for oil and gas leasing, we have an obligation to provide the American people with confidence that these shared resources can be developed responsibly,” Abigail Ross Hopper, director of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in announcing the proposed rules.
Among other requirements, oil companies would have to demonstrate an ability to respond quickly to mishaps in harsh Arctic conditions, and drilling crews would be required to have back-up equipment on immediate standby in case of a loss of control over an oil well. The purpose of the rules would be to “ensure safe energy exploration in unforgiving Arctic conditions,” said Brian Salerno, director of the department’s Bureau of Safety and Environment Enforcement.
The proposals come two years after a highly publicized accident involving the Kulluk, a large off-shore drilling barge owned by Royal Dutch Shell. The barge was being towed to its winter port on New Year’s Eve, 2012, when it broke from its moorings and grounded itself on an unpopulated island in the western Gulf of Alaska. The barge was recovered a week later without injury or significant environmental damage. No significant oil exploration has occurred in the Beaufort or Chukchi seas since the incident occurred.
The proposed rules drew a mixed reaction from both the energy industry and environmentalists, as well as from elected officials. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said regulators should not take steps to encourage further energy development in the Arctic. “It doesn’t matter what this or any future federal rule says. There should be no drilling in the Arctic,” he said.
But Michael LeVine, a senior attorney with Oceana, a Washington environment group, called the proposals “an important and necessary first step” that would allow a fundamental review of how and whether energy development should proceed in Arctic waters. “These rules should not be controversial,” he said. “There is no reason to oppose safety and spill prevention.”
Energy companies and trade groups expressed concern over the high costs of some specific safeguards that would be required under the rules. But a Shell official said the company had already adopted many of the safety measures, including the commissioning of an Arctic response fleet that could be deployed to the scene of any future spill or mishap in less than an hour.
“Of paramount concern in all of our operations is safety and environmental protection,” said Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman. “We support regulations that further these imperatives in the Arctic, provided they are clear, consistent and well-reasoned.”