Arctic Drilling Safeguards

Arctic Ocean drilling safeguards limit significant risks posed by exploration drilling in sea and weather conditions that are among the most challenging in the world.

H.J. Res. 70 is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-Ala.).

Credit: Gary Braasch, braaschphotography.com

OVERVIEW

A House resolution introduced by Alaska Representative Don Young, one of the oil industry’s staunchest congressional allies, aims to cancel technical regulations carefully crafted by the U.S. Department of the Interior that are designed improve safety and oil spill prevention for exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

The rule addresses important lessons learned from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico disaster and Shell’s 2012 and 2015 drilling efforts. It requires companies exploring for oil in federal waters of the US Arctic to use technologies that account for the uniquely challenging conditions there.

These challenges include remoteness, the lack of basic infrastructure like ports and runways, extreme weather and extended periods of darkness, the immense challenge of oil spill cleanup amidst sea ice, and impacts to vulnerable marine mammals, birds, and fishes.

A multi-stakeholder federal advisory committee, which included extensive industry involvement, recommended development of this rule in 2013. The House resolution seeks to nullify this technical and experience-based effort to strengthen regulations for offshore Arctic oil exploration and would return the Department of the Interior to antiquated drilling safety standards never intended for Arctic operations.

To ensure that all operators meet the same standards, the rule requires that companies exploring for oil and gas in Arctic offshore waters implement measures akin to those Shell agreed to utilize in 2012 and 2015 to prevent and respond to out-of-control wells or blowouts. These requirements include capping equipment and a back-up rig to drill a same-season relief well should the first rig be incapacitated or destroyed in an accident. The rule also limits exploratory drilling activity to the ice-free summer months so that drilling vessels and crews are not jeopardized by the formidable sea ice that begins to form in Arctic waters by autumn.

The rule does not affect oil and gas leasing, production or federal operations based on artificial islands like those in use or proposed in the Beaufort Sea.

Shell’s foray into the Arctic serves as a billion-dollar cautionary tale, beginning with its disastrous 2012 drilling season that featured numerous environmental and safety violations and a grounded drill rig, and ending in 2015 when it failed to find sufficient oil to warrant continuing exploration. In 2015, after oil companies relinquished billions of dollars of leases, the Obama administration rightfully cancelled planned Arctic Ocean lease sales and denied oil company requests to extend their existing leases. President Obama followed these actions by withdrawing 125 million acres of the Arctic Ocean from future leasing in 2015 and 2016.

IMPACTS

The Arctic Ocean drilling safety rule addresses regulatory deficiencies brought to light by BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and Shell’s 2012 and 2015 oil and gas exploration efforts in US Arctic waters, which were plagued by a litany of mistakes and major equipment failures resulting in multiple federal citations and fines. Shell’s effort demonstrated that even the world’s most experienced and well-resourced oil companies cannot drill in Arctic offshore operations.

The Arctic Ocean drilling safety rule is intended to limit the significant risks posed by exploration drilling in sea and weather conditions that are among the most challenging in the world.

  • Sea ice: The Chukchi and Beaufort seas that comprise the U.S. Arctic Ocean are characterized by seasonal sea ice that tends to freeze in fall and recede in late June. During the fall and spring, winds can deliver hazardous ice floes. By winter, seas are typically frozen solid.
  • Challenging weather and darkness: Dense fog, hurricane-force winds, high waves, sub-freezing temperatures possible year-round and long periods with little or no daylight.
  • Traditional spill response is unproven in the Arctic Ocean: None of the three primary oil spill response methods – mechanical containment, in situ burning, or dispersants – have been proven effective in Arctic conditions, especially should a clean-up be required amidst sea ice. This makes oil spill prevention even more important.
  • Remoteness: In justifying its rule, the Department of the Interior concluded: “These regulations are intended to ensure that operators have a coordinated and redundant system to provide adequate safety in exploratory drilling operations on the Arctic [Outer Continental Shelf]…redundancies that exist as a matter of course in an environment like the Gulf of Mexico are not present [in the Arctic].” Possible drilling areas are up to 1000 miles from the nearest major port in Dutch Harbor, and over 900 air miles from the nearest Coast Guard base in Kodiak.
  • Vulnerable wildlife: The Arctic’s beluga, gray, and bowhead whales, walrus, ice seals, and sea birds are sensitive to pollution and oil spills, all of which the Arctic drilling safety rule helps reduce.
  • Arctic indigenous communities: Alaska Natives and Arctic coastal communities utilize healthy wildlife populations and clean water for their subsistence way of life.
OPPONENTS

The resolution to strike the Arctic Ocean drilling safety rule was introduced on January 30, 2017 by Congressman Don Young (R-AK), a long-time friend of the oil and gas industry who has received more than $1.025 million in official donations from the fossil fuel industry since 1999. Rep. Young has a long record of parlaying large campaign donations into federal policies and earmarks that enrich his donors, and has had to apply some of his prodigious campaign funds to criminal defense lawyers investigating these activities.

TABLE: Spending by Opponents of Arctic Drilling Safeguards

Industry/Group Lobbying (2015) Political Spending (2016) % Political Spending to Republicans
Oil and gas industry  $130,031,004 $97,997,278 89%

 

TAKE ACTION

Congress: Don’t nullify the safety and prevention rules for exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean!
This petition is hosted by Oceana.

CONTACTS

Lois Epstein, The Wilderness Society, lois_epstein@tws.org, (907) 748-0448

Mike LeVine, Oceana, mlevine@oceana.org, (907) 723-0136

NEWS AND RESOURCES

Congressional Review Act Arctic Drilling Regulations Fact Sheet
Oceana & The Wilderness Society: January 2017

National Petroleum Council Arctic Oil and Gas Resources
Alaska Wilderness League & The Wilderness Society: April 2015