US officials want to make sure companies can handle a blow-out in remote and icy conditions – without inflicting an environmental disaster.
The Obama administration proposed new rules for Arctic oil drilling on Friday in an attempt to avoid repeating Shell’s disastrous foray into extreme waters.
The proposals, shaped by the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the grounding of Shell’s drill ship in the Arctic two years later, are aimed at making sure companies could handle a blow-out in remote and icy conditions – without inflicting an environmental disaster on the pristine seas.
For the first time, US offshore oil regulators will recognize the extreme conditions of drilling for oil in the storm-tossed waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, officials told a conference call with reporters.
“The Arctic continental shelf isn’t like the gulf of Mexico,” an interior department official told the call. “The Beaufort and Chukchi seas are incredibly remote.”
Under the proposals, oil companies would be forced to submit detailed and Arctic-specific safety plans, covering the entire range of operations. Companies would also have to demonstrate they could respond to a blow-out, including the capability to deploy a capping stack to plug the well within 24 hours, and a containment system within seven days.
Companies would also be required to operate with a separate back-up rig nearby, and to demonstrate they would be able to drill a relief well within a single short Arctic drilling season.
Officials said the standards were based on the experiences of Royal Dutch Shell’s disastrous first season of Arctic drilling in 2012, when the company’s Kulluk oil rig ran aground and had to be towed from the rocks through gale-force winds and stormy seas.
“There is a lot of commonality with what is proposed in this rule and what was done with Shell,” said Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safey and Environmental Enforcement, which oversees offshore oil drilling.
But Marilyn Heiman, who oversees Pew’s US Arctic project, said the time frames under the proposed rules went even further than those standards imposed on Shell in the aftermath of the 2012 accident.
“I think this ensures a much higher level of safety than has been required in the past,” she said. “But we have to take a close look at the regulations to really review them.”
Shell is planning to return to the Arctic this summer to dig a series of exploratory wells in the Chukchi sea – and has already adopted some of the measures. The company plans to deploy two rigs in the Chukchi sea.
However, they are unlikely to be finalised for another year and will likely face push back from other companies.
Environmental groups praised the administration’s recognition of the extreme Arctic conditions, where the nearest coast guard and deep water port lies some 1,000 miles away. But they said the new rules were not enough to protect the Arctic – and it would be premature to open up the area to drilling.
“There is no proven way to respond to a spill in icy Arctic waters and, as Shell unfortunately demonstrated, companies simply are not ready for the Arctic Ocean,” said Susan Murray, Ocean’s deputy vice president, Pacific. “Until and unless companies can operate safely and without harming the Arctic Ocean ecosystem, the government has no business allowing them into the region.
Greenpeace was even more definite. “There is no such thing as safe Arctic drilling,” the group said in a statement. “If a spill occurs towards the end of Shell’s drilling window, the sea ice won’t wait for the company to drill a relief well. These proposed regulations would only give a false sense of security.”