60-day assessment will focus on recent mishaps with drill rigs and containment equipment
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — After a series of serious mishaps involving Shell Oil’s Arctic ocean oil drilling equipment, federal officials said they will conduct a 60-day assessment of the proposed offshore drilling program in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, off the north coast of Alaska.
The Department of Interior acknowledged the problems Shell encountered in connection with certification of its containment vessel, the Arctic Challenger; the deployment of its containment dome; and operational issues associated with its two drilling rigs, the Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk.
Most recently, the Kulluk, a conical drilling rig, broke free while being towed and ran aground along the shore of a remote Alaskan island. Previously, U.S. Coast Guard inspections found several problems with other vessels in Shell’s Arctic fleet. Tests of an oil spill containment device also ended with questionable results.
Conservation groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council think the administration should go one step farther and suspend all drilling activities in the Arctic indefinitely, but that’s not likely to happen, as the Obama administration continues to push for development of domestic fossil fuel resources.
Earthjustice legislative representative Jessica Ennis said the Interior Department should require an independent review, including experts outside the government’s regulatory agencies.
“Critically, the outcome of the investigation should not be pre-ordained. We are troubled by the administration’s statement announcing the review alongside their commitment to drilling in frontier areas when Shell’s exploration for oil in Arctic federal waters continues on a parade of errors,” Ennis said. “The 2012 Arctic drilling season was characterized by mistakes. Just about everything that could go wrong, short of an oil spill, has gone wrong during Shell’s program.
“The secretary should not place an arbitrary 60-day time limit on the review. A robust investigation should begin, without a deadline, and not be complete until the cause of each problem is found. And Arctic Ocean drilling should be halted in the meantime,” she said. “The administration must take a step back and take a hard look at 2012 operations before making any decisions regarding not only how, but whether drilling in the Arctic Ocean should proceed.”
The assessment announced by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will pay special attention to challenges that Shell encountered in connection with certification of its containment vessel, the Arctic Challenger; the deployment of its containment dome; and operational issues associated with its two drilling rigs, the Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk.
“Developing America’s domestic energy sources is essential for reducing our dependence on foreign oil and creating jobs here at home and the Administration is fully committed to exploring for potential energy resources in frontier areas such as the Arctic,” Salazar said. “Exploration allows us to better comprehend the true scope of our resources in the Arctic and to more fully understand the nature of the risks and benefits of development in this region, but we also recognize that the unique challenges posed by the Arctic environment demand an even higher level of scrutiny.”
The review of Shell’s Arctic activities will be led by Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Director Tommy Beaudreau, who has been selected to serve as the Acting Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management. The review will look at Shell’s safety management systems, its oversight of contracted services, and its ability to meet the strict standards in place for Arctic development.
“As part of our Department’s oversight responsibilities, our review will look at Shell’s management and operations in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas,” said Beaudreau. “We will assess Shell’s performance in the Arctic’s challenging environment.”
During limited preparatory drilling operations last season, Shell constructed top-hole sections for one well each in the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea. BSEE conducted unprecedented oversight and had inspectors present onboard each Shell rig around the clock throughout those operations.
“The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement demands operators make safety at all levels at all times their number one priority, and we expect the highest level of performance from operators in the Arctic,” said BSEE Director James A. Watson. “As we oversee historic domestic drilling, BSEE will continue its unprecedented oversight of drilling activities in the Arctic and we will continue to hold anyone operating in public waters to the highest safety and environmental standards.”
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, the Obama Administration put in place significant new safeguards to protect the environment and the workers onboard offshore drilling rigs. These new safety measures include heightened drilling safety standards to reduce the chances that a loss of well control might occur in the first place, as well as a new focus on containment capabilities in the event of an oil spill.
The U.S. Coast Guard today also announced it has initiated a comprehensive marine casualty investigation regarding the recent grounding of the drill rig Kulluk. BSEE and the National Transportation Safety Board will provide technical assistance for the Coast Guard’s investigation.