Oil company commits to unprecedented safeguards to prevent an oil disaster in the Arctic, but will it be enough?
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Oil drilling in the frigid Arctic waters off Alaska could begin as early as June, after the Obama administration this week approved an emergency response plan proposed by Shell.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the response plan heeds the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The company was required to prepare a plan for a worst-case discharge nearly five times more than the amount envisioned by the previous plan, including a specific response for adverse weather conditions. The company’s new plan also includes equipment and strategies to respond to a loss of well control and a spill.
Those plans haven’t been reviewed by any independent experts yet, and will almost certainly be challenged by conservation groups and some native coastal residents opposed to drilling.
Opposition to Arctic drilling has philosophical roots, as conservation groups press their campaign to move away from fossil fuels altogether. That goes hand in hand with very real environmental concerns, including potential impacts to bowhead whales, polar bears and other ice-dependent species.
Some studies by the U.S. Geological Survey have concluded that there isn’t yet enough baseline data on Arctic ecosystems to make well-grounded decisions on drilling, but the Obama administration — under political pressure in an election year — claims that its approval is science-based.
For now, Shell has committed to making sure it can shut off the flow of oil with a capping stack if other shut-offs and containment systems fail, as well as the ability to capture and collect oil from that stack.
The plan also commits Shell to having access to a rig capable of drilling a relief well that could kill the well, if necessary. The ready availability of a capping stack and an oil collection system are new commitments that apply lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy to offshore oil and gas production activities, according to the Department of Interior.
“Alaska’s energy resources – onshore and offshore, conventional and renewable – hold great promise and economic opportunity for the people of Alaska and across the nation,” said Secretary Salazar. “In the Arctic frontier, cautious exploration – under the strongest oversight, safety requirements, and emergency response plans ever established – can help us expand our understanding of the area and its resources, and support our goal of continuing to increase safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production. We are taking a cautious approach, one that will help inform the wise decisions of tomorrow.”
Shell has proposed drilling up to six wells in the Chukchi Sea during the next two summer open water seasons within the Burger Prospect, located about 70 miles off the coast in approximately 140 feet of water.
“After an exhaustive review, we have confidence that Shell’s plan includes the necessary equipment and personnel pre-staging, training, logistics and communications to act quickly and mount an effective response should a spill occur,” said BSEE Director James A. Watson. “Our staff will maintain vigilant oversight over Shell to ensure that they adhere to this plan, and that all future drilling operations are conducted safely with a focus toward spill prevention.”
The approval does not authorize Shell to begin drilling; Shell must still seek and obtain approval from BSEE for well-specific drilling permits prior to commencing operations, and BSEE would inspect and approve equipment that has been designed and deployed for the effort, including Shell’s capping stack, before activities could go forward.
Drilling activities would end in October to enable all capping, response and well killing operations could be conducted in open water before ice forms in Chukchi waters. More information on the oil spill response requirements are online here.
Filed under: energy, Environment, oil drilling, Summit County news Tagged: | Alaska, Arctic oil drilling, Arctic oil drilling response plan approved, Arctic oil spill, Chukchi Sea, Deepwater Horizon, Shell Oil