The Blog Aquatic » oil dilling News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Spotlight on the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska: A Balanced Management Plan Mon, 11 Mar 2013 12:06:45 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

Located in northwestern Alaska, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (or the “Reserve”) encompasses vast and pristine Arctic landscapes, lakes, rivers, coastal lagoons and barrier islands. The Reserve is the single biggest unit of public land in the country; covering nearly 23 million acres, it is roughly the size of Indiana.

The Reserve is home to caribou, wolves, wolverine and grizzly bears, and provides breeding habitat for birds from every continent. Its coastal areas provide important denning habitat for polar bears, while the lagoons and near-shore waters are used by beluga whales, walruses and several species of ice-dependent seals. Additionally, native subsistence communities rely on the Reserve’s fish and wildlife species.

There is no doubt that the Reserve contains world-class wildlife resources, but  as the name implies, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska also contains oil and gas resources. However, the energy resources are not as rich as was once believed. In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a new analysis and estimated the volume of undiscovered oil resources in the Reserve to be just 10 percent of what was previously thought.

Regardless of how much oil the Reserve contains, federal law requires the Department of the Interior to balance energy exploration and development with “maximum protection” of fish, wildlife and other surface values. Late last month, the Department of the Interior approved a comprehensive management plan for the Reserve that achieves this balance.

The newly approved management plan is the first of its kind to cover the entire Reserve, and  will protect the environment while also allowing oil and gas companies to access the majority of economically recoverable oil. Furthermore, it allows for future pipelines and other infrastructure in the event that oil and gas development proceeds in offshore areas.

Simultaneously, the plan provides important protections for some of the Reserve’s most sensitive habitats. It expands the Teshekpuk Lake and Colville River special areas, and creates a new special area for Peard Bay on the Chukchi Sea coast. The management plan provides significant protections for key coastal areas, including polar bear habitat, walrus and spotted seal haul out areas, and coastal lagoons important to beluga whales. In all, the newly approved management plan withdraws approximately 11 million acres of the Reserve from oil and gas leasing.

Ocean Conservancy joined with many other conservation organizations to support the new management plan for the Reserve, and the Department of the Interior’s decision to approve the plan represents a major step forward. By placing meaningful restrictions on oil and gas development to protect vital onshore and coastal habitats, the new plan demonstrates that it is possible to balance responsible energy development with conservation objectives. That’s a lesson worth remembering.

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Too Close for Comfort–Map Shows Sensitive Areas Near Latest Tragic Gulf Rig Blast Wed, 21 Nov 2012 17:45:36 +0000 Stan Senner

Ocean Conservancy Map of important ecological areas near the recent rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico

Less than 24 hours after the US Government announced historic criminal fines for BP’s activities leading up to and following the BP oil disaster, an explosion on a production platform about 25 miles south of Grand Isle, LA left several workers injured, one man dead and another missing. The owner of the rig, Black Elk Energy, announced today that they were calling off the search for the missing worker.

This tragic event is a somber reminder that accidents can and do happen despite our best efforts to prevent them. Whether in the Gulf of Mexico or the Chukchi Sea (off Alaska’s Arctic coast), fossil fuel extraction carries risks to the workers as well as to sensitive environmental resources.

When an event like the explosion on the Black Elk rig occurs, it is natural and appropriate  to focus first on the well-being of those involved in a tragedy and then on the recovery and restoration of our natural resources, but it is critical to remember that we must also ensure that we are better prepared for the accidents and disasters that will inevitably occur.

In the wake of the BP oil disaster in 2010, President Barack Obama established the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The Commission’s task was to identify the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and to make recommendations to guard against, and mitigate the impact of, any oil spills associated with offshore drilling in the future. You can read the report here.

The Commission delivered the report in January of 2011, and made a series of recommendations to improve oil spill response planning, as well as safety recommendations, and suggested policy and funding changes.

Not satisfied with issuing a report that collects dust on a shelf, several members of the Commission went on to form a group known as Oil Spill Commission ACTION. This group issued a report card in April of 2012 that graded the oil and gas industry, regulators and elected officials on their progress towards implementing the recommendations of the commission.  Grades ranged from a B for “Improving Safety and Environmental Protections” to a D for Congress for failing to provide adequate resources.

When incidents like rig explosions occur, the government and the regulated entity (like BP or Black Elk Energy) use pre-existing response plans to address the threat and mitigate damage. Every coastal area also has what is known as an Area Contingency Plan (or ACP), which is developed by a wide-range of agencies like the US Coast Guard and local officials. One of the critical pieces of the ACP is the identification of environmentally sensitive areas and a plan for how to protect them. As you can see from the map created by Matt Love, a conservation biologist at Ocean Conservancy, the area surrounding the Black Elk Energy rig has many important ecological values, including providing important habitat for developing menhaden eggs and larvae.

We must not lose sight of how oil and gas companies, regulatory agencies and legislators are progressing with implementation of the recommendations of the Oil Spill Commission. We must also track their efforts to identify and protect environmentally sensitive areas, whether in the Gulf or in the Arctic. Accidents are going to happen, but we can work to reduce the risk of disasters if we commit to preparing for them instead of always betting that we can avoid a worst-case scenario.

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Failing to BSEE the Risk of Arctic Drilling Wed, 11 Jul 2012 17:30:33 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

Arctic drilling burnoff. Credit: Getty Images

Less than two weeks ago, I wrote about the Obama administration’s decisions on Arctic oil and gas lease sales in the new five year offshore drilling program. That day, there was both promising and discouraging news. Today, however, the news is not mixed: Ocean Conservancy – in conjunction with a coalition of like-minded groups – is filing suit in federal court challenging the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s (BSEE) approval of Shell Oil’s spill response plan for the Chukchi Sea. Instead of approving plans that authorize risky exploration drilling, the Obama administration should focus on developing and implementing a comprehensive science and monitoring plan so that we can make more informed decisions about whether, when, where, and how to allow drilling in the Arctic.

Shell is proposing major industrial activity in a remote and dangerous place. The Arctic Ocean is prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, sea ice up to 25 feet thick, sub-zero temperatures, and months-long darkness. There is no proven way to clean up an oil spill in these extreme conditions. And on top of all that, the Arctic has extremely limited infrastructure: There are no roads or deep water ports and only a handful of small airports. The nearest Coast Guard station is over 1,000 miles away.

In addition, there is no evidence that Shell is prepared to respond to and clean-up a spill in the Arctic. To date, there have been no tests of skimming and booming in domestic Arctic waters since 2000. Those decade-old tests were widely viewed as failures. Shell’s capping stack and Arctic containment system have never been used in the Arctic and there have been no tests of these systems in Arctic conditions.

Although the Arctic marine environment is one of most challenging on the face of the earth, that alone is not grounds for litigation. We filed this legal complaint because BSEE failed to adequately scrutinize Shell’s oil spill response plan and the potential impacts of Shell’s proposed response techniques.

  • BSEE approved the spill response plan even though portions of the plan were premised on the unrealistic assumption that Shell will be able to clean up more than 90% of spilled oil in a catastrophic spill;
  • BSEE did not adequately review sensitive environmental areas in the Arctic to ensure Shell’s spill plans would provide the required degree of protection;
  • BSEE did not comply with the environmental analysis requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act – it did not prepare an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment in conjunction with Shell’s spill response plan.

Right now, the United States relies on fossil fuels, but going forward, we must reduce our dependence. As we make this transition, we must ensure our energy development is safe and responsible, that it incorporates more and more renewable energy sources, and that it is coupled with sensible conservation measures and investments. Drilling holes in the seafloor of the most unforgiving environments on earth will not move us in the right direction.

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“To The Arctic” and Drilling in Alaska Mon, 23 Apr 2012 22:08:23 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

To the Arctic follows a polar bear mother and her two cubs through a changing world. Image from MacGillivray Freeman Films.

Arctic drilling may not seem like something that affects most of us. After all, when was the last time you had a chance to dive into icy Arctic waters with walruses or follow polar bears across vast stretches of sea ice? But now, you can experience the Arctic from the comfort of a theater seat with “To the Arctic,” a new IMAX® movie by MacGillivray Freeman.

The film, narrated by Meryl Streep, follows a polar bear and her two cubs as they make their way through the rugged Arctic landscape. Along the way, you’ll see amazing images of our rapidly changing world, including stunning footage of wildlife, sweeping stretches of tundra, ghostly northern lights, and sculpted icebergs dotting the ocean.

But there are some things you shouldn’t see in the Arctic—like offshore drilling rigs. This summer, Shell is planning to drill for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the north and west coasts of Alaska. Drilling for oil in this region would be incredibly risky. The Arctic Ocean is prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, sea ice up to 25 feet thick, sub-zero temperatures and months-long darkness. Do these sound like prime conditions for responding to an emergency?

Exploration drilling—like the drilling proposed by Shell this summer—could be the first step toward rapid and unchecked development in the U.S. Arctic. Even if the initial operations go according to plan, Shell’s exploration drilling will bring increased pollution, noise, and air and vessel traffic to Arctic waters. And of course, things might not go as planned: offshore drilling could lead to a major oil spill that would devastate the Arctic ecosystem, people and wildlife. To date, oil and gas companies haven’t shown that they can effectively clean up a major oil spill in real-world Arctic conditions.

Given the risks, now is not the time to allow exploration drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Instead of giving the green light to drilling in the Arctic, the government should focus on identifying and protecting areas in the ocean that are especially important for wildlife and indigenous people. According to a recent U.S. Geological Survey report, there are still major gaps in our scientific understanding of the Arctic Ocean. We should have a research and monitoring plan designed to fill those gaps before drilling goes forward. And industry operators must demonstrate their ability to respond effectively to a large oil spill in real-world Arctic conditions. We still have a chance to get it right in the Arctic, but we need to slow down, do research, and put in place scientifically sound solutions.

To learn more about the Arctic and the threats it faces, click here. And please take action to protect the Arctic here.

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