Arctic oil drilling needs better federal regulation

The federal review released today that discusses the failures that plagued last year's Arctic oil-drilling operations is a welcome first step. But only by strengthening federal regulation of these operations can President Obama show a commitment to responsible Arctic Ocean development.

Zachary Painter/US Coast Guard/AP/File
Shell Oil's drilling unit, Kulluk, sits grounded 40 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska, on Jan. 3. Op-ed contributor Marilyn Heiman writes: 'Last year's problem-plagued attempt to drill for oil makes clear that much remains to be done to ensure that decisions are made to protect America's irreplaceable Arctic Ocean.'

While the allure of oil reserves in the Arctic Ocean has attracted the interest of several major energy companies, recent news has made it clear that the region is an extremely challenging and dangerous place to drill for oil. Royal Dutch Shell PLC – the only company that attempted to drill in the US Arctic Ocean in 2012 – has delayed plans to try drilling again this year because it needs more time to repair and upgrade its drill rigs and containment system after last year’s string of mishaps. This announcement comes just prior to today’s release of a review of last year's drilling activities by the US Department of the Interior. 

The federal review represents a welcome first step toward identifying safety and systems failures that plagued last year's Arctic oil-drilling operations. Only by taking additional steps to strengthen federal review and regulation of these operations, however, can the Obama administration show its commitment to responsible Arctic Ocean development.

Outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered the expedited assessment after a Shell oil rig ran aground near Alaska's Kodiak Island on New Year's Eve. The Kulluk was on its way to the Pacific Northwest from its Arctic drilling site off Alaska's north coast when the ship towing it lost power, the towlines broke, and the rig hit the rocks.

It wasn't the drilling season's sole mishap. Both the Kulluk and a second rig, the Noble Discoverer, are now being towed to Asia for inspection and repairs. A US Coast Guard investigation of the Noble Discoverer found 16 violations of safety and pollution-control regulations. A US Department of Justice criminal investigation is now under way based on the violations.

But the issues go beyond any single accident or oil company. The Kulluk ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska only 50 miles from the closest US Coast Guard station, yet the current targets for drilling lie 1,000 miles farther north in the Arctic Ocean. Helicopters, planes, and vessels were on hand to evacuate the crew of the Kulluk and assist in the salvage. But farther north, there are no major ports, airports, or roads. Hurricane-force winds, subzero temperatures, shifting sea ice, and long periods of fog and darkness could shut down a rescue operation or spill response altogether. No proven methods exist to clean up oil in broken ice.

At stake is not only the safety of crew members and rescue workers, but also a rich and complex ecosystem found nowhere else in the United States. The Arctic Ocean is home to bowhead whales, walruses, polar bears, and other magnificent marine mammals as well as millions of migratory birds. Alaska Native communities have depended on a healthy ocean for traditional hunting and fishing for hundreds of years.

If the Obama administration wants a balanced approach to drilling, it can take steps now to ensure that offshore Arctic development is done as safely and sustainably as possible.

First, it must incorporate world-class, Arctic-specific safety, spill prevention, and response standards into federal regulations that apply to every company operating in the region. These should account for the area's remote location, lack of infrastructure, and unique operating conditions due to the severe climate. Equipment and techniques used in temperate waters are simply not transferable to the Arctic.

The administration must also protect areas that are biologically important or used for hunting and fishing by indigenous communities. The local communities should have a voice on what kind of development is appropriate, where it should take place, and what safeguards are needed. Traditional knowledge of Alaska Natives, who have survived in these extreme conditions since time immemorial, should be a critical piece of any decisions about development in the Arctic.

The federal government must also ensure that both science and conservation guide decision-making. This will require a long-term monitoring program to assess the cumulative effects of multiple, interacting stresses. Such stresses include changes in climate, plus noise and pollution from vessel traffic and drilling operations, which can disrupt habitat, migration patterns, and communications for whales and other marine mammals.

Finally, oil spill prevention and response plans must be publicly reviewed and tested to work in Arctic conditions with full transparency. All industry operators must keep the public informed in a timely manner. Providing opportunities for review and comment on exploration and oil-spill plans will be an important step toward building public trust.

Americans have learned this lesson before: Investigations into the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill found – too late – that spill prevention and response capacity in Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound was fundamentally inadequate.

Last year's problem-plagued attempt to drill for oil makes clear that much remains to be done to ensure that decisions are made to protect America's irreplaceable Arctic Ocean. Such lapses are not acceptable only three short years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Marilyn Heiman directs the US Arctic program for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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