The Bering Strait is the only marine connection between the Chukchi Sea and Arctic Ocean to the north and the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean to the south. Just 55 miles wide, the Strait separates Alaska to the east and Russia to the west.
The Bering Strait is a biological hotspot. Millions of seabirds and hundreds of thousands of marine mammals use the Strait as a migratory corridor, and the Bering and Chukchi Seas are one of the most productive ocean ecosystems in the world.
Findings from a recent study suggest that continued reductions in seasonal ice cover in the Arctic Ocean will lead to bigger waves capable of breaking up remaining sea ice and accelerating ice loss. In the past, much of the Arctic Ocean was covered with sea ice all year round. With little open water, even the fiercest storms could not generate big waves.
Breaking: The U.S. government is beginning to make plans for future offshore oil and gas operations—and those plans could open Arctic waters to risky drilling.
This follows Shell Oil’s decision to abandon Arctic drilling this summer, after an accident-plagued 2012.
If a disaster like BP Deepwater Horizon happened in the Arctic, spill response would be even more challenging. The Arctic’s sea ice, freezing temperatures, gale force winds, and lack of visibility could make cleanup next to impossible.
On Jan. 30, Shell Oil announced that it has postponed plans to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska in 2014. Shell’s decision followed a recent court decision that threw into question the status of Shell’s offshore oil leases in the Chukchi Sea—but other factors are at play, too.
As explained in my previous blog post, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that an environmental analysis associated with the 2008 Chukchi Sea lease sale was faulty. Under the court’s decision, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will have to revisit that environmental analysis, and then decide whether to affirm its 2008 decision to sell the offshore leases. In the wake of the court ruling, Shell’s new CEO announced that the company is “not prepared to commit further resources for drilling in Alaska in 2014.”
On Jan. 22, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion that will help ensure federal agencies and the public have a more complete picture of the risks and environmental impacts that could result from the sale of offshore oil and gas leases. The court’s decision also raises serious questions about the status of Arctic leases in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska, and could make it difficult for companies like Shell Oil to drill for oil anytime soon.
The 9th Circuit ruled that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) did not follow legal requirements when the agency assessed the potential environmental impacts of a 2008 offshore oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea. Before deciding whether to sell offshore oil and gas leases, BOEM conducts an environmental analysis. Part of that analysis assesses the potential impact of oil and gas development that might result from the lease sale. In the case of the Chukchi Sea lease sale, BOEM’s analysis assumed the sale of the offshore leases would result in the production of a relatively low volume of oil. In fact, BOEM used the very lowest estimate that could possibly be expected.
Yesterday in Anchorage, the U.S. District Court of Alaska upheld the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s decision to approve Shell Oil’s plans for preventing and cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean. The court’s decision is a setback, but it doesn’t change the fact that Shell has failed to meet its obligation to operate safely and responsibly in the Arctic at every turn.
The 2012 Arctic drilling season for Shell was remarkably calamitous. From the beginning, Shell experienced failures when their drillship the Noble Discoverernearly ran aground in Unalaska Bay near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. By the end of the drilling season, the same drillship developed propulsion problems and needed to be towed into port in Seward for repairs.
Then in late December, the Kulluk, Shell’s other Arctic drilling unit, ran aground off of Sitkalidak Island after heavy seas snapped the towline between it and Shell’s tugboat. After a salvage operation plucked the Kulluk off the coast—thankfully with no major injuries or spills—it was eventually dry-towed to Asia for repairs in March.
Today, Alaska Senator Mark Begich introduced important new legislation that would establish a permanent program to conduct research, monitoring, and observing activities in the Arctic. If passed, Senator Begich’s bill could lead to significant advances in Arctic science that can then be used to support decisions about the management of a region that is crucial not only to the people who live there, but to the world.