The Blog Aquatic » Department of Interior http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 30 Oct 2014 16:27:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Reprieve from Arctic Drilling Creates an Opportunity for Progress http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/09/10/reprieve-from-arctic-drilling-creates-an-opportunity-for-progress/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/09/10/reprieve-from-arctic-drilling-creates-an-opportunity-for-progress/#comments Tue, 10 Sep 2013 18:30:13 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=6620 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.

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Salazar: Shell Screwed Up http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/03/14/salazar-shell-screwed-up/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/03/14/salazar-shell-screwed-up/#comments Thu, 14 Mar 2013 22:41:29 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=5156

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

“Shell screwed up in 2012.” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was bluntly accurate when speaking about Shell’s calamitous Arctic drilling program today.

The Interior Department’s new high-level, 60-day review – while not comprehensive – calls attention to serious shortcomings in Shell’s 2012 effort and recommends a more thorough, integrated approach to planning and oversight before deciding on whether to approve future Arctic drilling operations.

The review confirms what we already knew: that Shell simply was not ready to conduct safe and responsible operations in icy Arctic waters. It also demonstrates that federal agencies need to do a better job holding the oil industry accountable and setting higher standards for safety and environmental protection.

To that end, Shell will be required to submit a “comprehensive, integrated plan” covering all aspects of drilling and related operations, and “commission and complete a full third-party audit” of its management systems.

The company’s drilling program was plagued by problems throughout the season. Its performance has been notable only for its failures, and has provided us with a laundry list of reasons for why industry is not ready for offshore oil exploration in the Arctic.

The Interior Department initiated its urgent review of Shell’s actions in the Arctic in light of the recent grounding of the Kulluk drilling rig off the coast of Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. The company’s other Arctic drillship—the Noble Discoverer—suffered significant problems with propulsion, safety and pollution prevention systems. As a result, Shell now plans to dry-tow both vessels to Asia for repair and renovation. This latest setback prompted the troubled oil company to announce that it would hit pause on its plans to drill in the Arctic during the 2013 season.

While Shell’s admission of defeat this year reduces the short-term threat of Arctic drilling, it only makes the findings of the Interior Department’s review that much more important in the long run. Shell may have halted its drilling operations for now, but it plans to bring its drill rigs back to the Arctic soon. Furthermore, ConocoPhillips recently declared that it is not backing off on its plan to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic in 2014.

Without meaningful action from the Interior Department and other government agencies, Arctic drilling could lead to a disaster for the region. As the 60-day review put it, a “significant accident or spill in the remote and inhospitable Alaskan Arctic could have catastrophic consequences on fragile ecosystems and the people who depend on the ocean for subsistence.”

The Interior Department’s review is a first step on the road to implementing stronger, safer and more protective oversight of Arctic waters. Now, government agencies need to follow through on the report’s recommendations and make meaningful changes to the way they plan for and manage Arctic oil and gas operations.

In the meantime, there should be a complete time-out on Arctic drilling until we have improved our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, protected important ecological and subsistence areas and developed effective methods to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic water. Thankfully, Shell’s decision to pass on the 2013 drilling season gives us time to make progress.

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Not Arctic Ready: Shell Oil Is Unprepared http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/08/16/not-arctic-ready-shell-oil-is-unprepared/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/08/16/not-arctic-ready-shell-oil-is-unprepared/#comments Thu, 16 Aug 2012 15:46:56 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=2403 Arctic sea ice

© Corbis. All rights reserved.

For years, Shell has tried to carry out a risky plan to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean. This summer, it looked like Shell would finally get its wish.

In June, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said that it was “highly likely” that the federal government would issue the permits Shell needs to conduct Arctic drilling operations. Later, Secretary Salazar told the New York Times that he would decide no later than August 15 whether to allow Shell to conduct exploration drilling in the Arctic this summer.

August 15 came and went, and there was no decision from Secretary Salazar. Why the delay? The delay comes because, as Ocean Conservancy and others have stated repeatedly, Shell is not ready to drill.

Despite having years to prepare, Shell has been unable to complete a series of required modifications to its oil spill containment barge. The barge, the Arctic Challenger, is an integral part of Shell’s oil spill response plan for the Arctic Ocean. But the vessel is currently undergoing modifications in Bellingham, Washington—far from the Arctic.

Until the required modifications to the vessel are complete, the Coast Guard cannot certify the vessel and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement cannot issue Shell the final permits it needs to begin drilling.

In a discussion a couple of days ago, Secretary Salazar recognized that the decision to approve or deny Shell’s final permits would be delayed beyond August 15. He placed the blame squarely on Shell, saying, “the cause for any delay here is Shell’s construction of its vessel … They have not been able to get it done.”

Shell’s inability to satisfy the Coast Guard requirements is part of a larger pattern of failures. As I wrote a few weeks ago:

  • Shell has admitted that it won’t be able to comply with the terms of its EPA air permits;
  • It has backpedaled from its claim that it will be able to clean up 90 percent of the oil released in a worst-case spill; and
  • It failed to maintain control of its 500-foot drillship—causing it to nearly run aground near Dutch Harbor.

These failures convey a clear message: Shell is not ready to drill in the Arctic.

On top of that, Shell is rapidly running out of time. One report suggests that the Arctic Challenger won’t be ready until the end of August. Even after renovations are complete, it would likely take a couple of weeks for the vessel to travel from Bellingham to the Arctic Ocean. That could mean that the Arctic Challenger would not be in place until mid-September.

The environmental community, including Ocean Conservancy, has shone a bright light on Shell’s reckless Arctic drilling plans, and we should be encouraged by the fact that Interior has taken steps to put safety first and delay its decision on allowing Shell to drill.

However, if drilling permits are eventually approved, those delays come with their own risks.

Federally approved exploration plans require Shell to stop drilling in known hydrocarbon zones in the Chukchi Sea by September 24.

In the Beaufort Sea, Shell has agreed not to drill during a subsistence hunting period that begins August 25 and could last several weeks or more. Drilling can take place after the subsistence hunting period ends, but Shell must stop drilling into oil-bearing layers in the Beaufort Sea by October 31.

Shell has said it will take between 20 and 40 days to drill its Arctic wells. Under these deadlines, Shell would have to rush to complete even a single well in the Arctic. And rushing in the Arctic is not a smart approach.

Drilling in the Arctic Ocean is incredibly risky under the best of circumstances. Shell’s recent history of failures and missteps shows that the company is not ready to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

There’s no need for Secretary Salazar to delay his decision any longer: He should act now to deny Shell’s permits and keep the company out of the Arctic Ocean this summer.

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