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.
Just before the government shutdown brought federal agencies to a standstill at the beginning of October, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) issued a “call for information” for a potential new oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of northwest Alaska. A new Chukchi Sea lease sale would allow oil and gas companies to buy additional oil leases in one of the most remote and challenging environments on the planet. The response to the call for information is easy: now is not the time to sell new oil and gas lease sales in the Chukchi Sea.
The last oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea was in 2008. Since that time, the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico reminded the world that when things go wrong, offshore drilling can have catastrophic consequences for fish and wildlife, marine and coastal environments, and residents of affected coastal communities. The Deepwater Horizon disaster also triggered new safety and environmental protection requirements for oil and gas companies that wish to drill in Arctic waters.
Two years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Royal Dutch Shell tried its hand at drilling in the Arctic and experienced a whole series of disasters. Among other things, a massive ice floe blocked access to one drilling site for about two weeks, the company’s drilling vessels violated their air emission permits, the drillship Discoverer suffered propulsion problems and had to be towed to port, and the drilling unit Kulluk ran aground off Kodiak Island and had to be salvaged by outside consultants. For all that, Shell failed to complete a single Arctic well.
As we begin week two of BP’s trial in New Orleans, I can’t help but think back to the earliest days of the spill when oil spewed uncontrolled from the depths of the ocean and snaked its way toward shore.
I was at Incident Command in Mobile, Ala., when people were just starting to realize how serious that spill was going to be. The command center housed hundreds of people, from local elected officials to Coast Guard officers to the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And of course, BP was there en masse.
It was a surreal experience, but one of my most vivid memories of that time was the look on the faces of the BP employees. It was a cross between disbelief and sheer panic. Looking into their eyes, you could tell that they literally had not thought this type of disaster could ever occur. They were really scared.
But by the end of the summer, those looks were gone. They were replaced by perfect sound bites, slick slogans and promises to “make it right.” And when the well was capped after 87 days, the story faded in most of the country, replaced by commercials about the Gulf being better than ever.
In the past three years, BP has spent inordinate amounts of time and money shirking responsibility, pointing fingers at others and downplaying the seriousness of the disaster. Now is the time for BP to be held responsible.
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.
This decision is disappointing — especially considering that it was just a year ago that the U.S. Geological Survey released a report outlining significant gaps in science that must be addressed to make no-regrets choices about oil and gas development in the Arctic. Many of those gaps have yet to be filled.
How can federal agencies make informed decisions about future lease sales or exploration drilling without a better understanding of the Arctic ecosystem?