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Arctic drilling: US setting policy to protect environment, indigenous people

With receding sea ice allowing energy exploration in the Arctic, the US is set to unveil a five-year leasing plan that seeks to minimize the negative environmental impact of the drilling.

By Staff writer / June 27, 2012

A polar bear sow and two cubs are seen on the Beaufort Sea coast within the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Image Library.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/REUTERS

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The United States is set to unveil a five-year scheme for offshore oil and gas leases that it says will open more of the Arctic Ocean to exploration while protecting the environment and the livelihoods of indigenous peoples.

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The US is planning the move as Royal Dutch Shell prepares to sink two exploration wells in US Arctic Ocean waters – one in the Chukchi Sea between Alaska and Siberia and north of the Bering Strait, the other in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska.

“We are currently in the final stages of a rigorous review of Shell’s proposal to drill exploratory wells ... this summer,” said David Hayes, deputy secretary of the Interior, in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, adding that he anticipated Shell would be granted permission to proceed.

IN PICTURES: Arctic Ice

In granting new offshore oil and gas leases outside the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration is seeking to minimize impact on the environment and indigenous people with a policy dubbed targeted leases.

Instead of opening vast tracts of sea floor for leases, the administration is trying to focus on areas with the highest potential for oil and gas, while excluding exploration in environmentally sensitive areas or areas important to the livelihoods of indigenous people along the coast of the Arctic Ocean.

Most details await the Interior Department’s release of the five-year program, but federal officials, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, previewed the broad outlines in the conference call.

The approach, which aims to put science, environmental issues, and indigenous uses on a more equal footing with barrels of oil and cubic feet of gas, comes at a time when countries bordering the Arctic are trying to craft what Secretary Salazar calls an integrated approach to oil and gas development at the top of the world.

Russia already has drilled a handful of exploratory wells in its Arctic waters. On Tuesday, Norway announced plans to issue oil and gas exploration permits for up to 86 offshore tracts, most of them in Arctic waters, by the end of 2013.

“We have seen very strong interest in the Arctic ... and the oil industry is clearly moving north,” Norwegian Petroleum and Energy Minister Ola Borten told Reuters.

By some estimates, the undersea reserves are enormous. The US Geological Survey has calculated that the Arctic sea floor caps 13 percent of the world's undiscovered "conventional" oil reserves and 30 percent of undiscovered natural-gas reserves.

The increased interest in its ocean resources has been driven by the melt-back of summer sea ice caused in part by global warming. The extent of summer sea ice has been declining since satellites first began keeping track in 1979. On June 18, the observed extent of sea ice eclipsed the record low for the day set in 2010 and was significantly lower than the same date in 2007, which saw a record at the end of the melt season in September. More open water during the summer widens the opportunity for exploration.

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