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Reprieve from Arctic Drilling Creates an Opportunity for Progress

Posted On September 10, 2013 by

Polar Bear Mother and Cubs near Pack Ice

Photo © Image Plan/Corbis

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, Shell Oil had a fleet of vessels in the Arctic Ocean in an attempt to drill for oil off the north and northwest coasts of Alaska. But Shell’s 2012 season was plagued by mishaps and mistakes, from the near-grounding of the drillship Noble Discoverer last July to the all-too-real grounding of the drilling unit Kulluk on New Year’s Day this year.

In the end, Shell failed to complete a single Arctic well, and both the Noble Discoverer and Kulluk were so badly damaged that they were towed to Asia for repair earlier this year. In fact, the EPA just fined Shell $1.1 million for unauthorized levels of air pollution from the two vessels — yet another reminder that Shell was not prepared for its Arctic operations.

Shell’s disastrous 2012 season caused oil companies to retreat from proposed offshore drilling plans in the U.S. Arctic. Shell abandoned its plan to drill wells in the Arctic Ocean this year, and ConocoPhillips and Statoil announced they won’t attempt to drill their leases in the Chukchi Sea until at least 2015. This summer, the Arctic Ocean got a reprieve.

Make no mistake, though: this is a temporary reprieve. Shell has made clear that it is still committed to drilling in the Arctic, and ConocoPhillips and Statoil have not given up on their Arctic oil leases either. As I’ve written before, the threat of drilling in Arctic waters is still very much alive.

Even so, this temporarily provides an important opportunity to advocate a better, more thoughtful approach to decision-making in the Arctic. That’s why Ocean Conservancy has been pushing for meaningful changes to the way that federal agencies plan for and manage oil and gas operations in the Arctic. Fortunately, we’re starting to see some progress.

For example, the Department of Interior has announced its intent to improve federal regulations that govern offshore oil and gas operations in the Arctic. We’ve long advocated this kind of reform, since existing regulations don’t reflect the special challenges presented by drilling in Arctic conditions. So far, the Interior Department is considering regulations relating to specific issues like containment systems, relief well capability, and mutual assistance and resource sharing in Arctic waters. Those changes would be a good first step, but the Interior Department also needs to undertake more comprehensive regulatory reform to ensure risks and benefits are weighed properly at the beginning of the planning process.

In addition, the Obama administration released a new National Strategy for the Arctic Region that crystallizes some important concepts. Among those, it calls for protection of the Arctic environment and conservation of Arctic resources, and it recognizes the need for scientific research and traditional knowledge to improve our understanding of the Arctic region. Moreover, the strategy endorses a more coordinated approach to Arctic decision-making called Integrated Arctic Management.

As my colleague Stan Senner noted in an earlier blog post, the piecemeal approach to decision-making that has been used in the Arctic so far has made it difficult to assess the cumulative impacts of multiple development decisions. Integrated Arctic Management is a different approach that should help to identify environmentally sensitive areas at the outset to help ensure they are protected, monitored and managed appropriately.

The Department of Interior’s new regulations and the Obama administration’s new National Strategy for the Arctic Region show promise, but they are still in early stages. Real change will come when the Interior Department finalizes comprehensive regulatory reform, and when the words and goals articulated in the National Strategy are realized in concrete conservation actions. We’re making progress, but we still have a long way to go.

Help us put Arctic drilling plans on ice until oil companies prove they can clean up an oil spill in severe Arctic conditions. Sign the petition today.