The Polar Pioneer drill rig is on its way to the Chukchi Sea at the same time as a Congressional Hearing on Arctic Resources

U. S. Arctic Offshore Drilling Again in the Spotlight

Published
American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

On June 16 the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, chaired by Representative Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) investigated Arctic Resources and American Competitiveness.

This hearing comes at the same time as Shell mobilizes its equipment for drilling in the Chukchi Sea later this summer. Groups opposed to Arctic drilling recently protested the Polar Pioneer drilling rig’s departure from the Port of Seattle—shown in the attached picture.

Chairman Lamborn noted the importance of Arctic offshore energy development to Alaskan natives, the State of Alaska, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, and to our nation’s goal of energy security and independence.

A minority-party committee member called for requiring every possible safety measure for arctic operators, observing that the Alaska arctic is being developed too quickly even as the effects of global warming are overwhelming it.&

Brian Salerno, Director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) testified about the proposed regulations for exploratory drilling on the U.S. Arctic Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). (The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, BOEM was involved in developing the regulations.) The comment period for the draft regulations closed on May 27. The agency is now evaluating the 100,000-plus comments. Salerno reported that comments from environmental organizations generally support the regulations, while industry finds them too restrictive, and the public largely objects to any Arctic OCS development.

This hearing focused on two major issues in the rules, the requirement for a standby rig available to drill a relief well if there is a blowout, and the shortened drilling season, which is intended to allow time to respond to an oil spill before the water is frozen over. Shell has already complied with an additional requirement for an integrated operations plan, and intends to comply with these rules.

Drue Pearce, participated in the National Petroleum Council’s (NPC) recent study, Arctic Potential: Realizing the Promise of U.S. Arctic Oil and Gas Resources. She commented on BSEE requirements that she considers inconsistent with the NPC recommendations, including the requirement for a standby rig. She argued that moving a second rig and its support vessels over long distances might create a greater risk of an oil spill, given that transportation related incidents are more likely than a blowout—the Chukchi Sea drilling objectives are shallow and generally low-pressure reservoirs that do not generate blowouts. Pearce also voiced the opinion that a capping system is acceptable for other Arctic countries for dealing with blowouts. Salerno replied that capping systems are not proven.

Representative Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) asked about the offshore risk of shallow-gas blowouts that are known in the North Slope oil fields. Richard Glenn, the witness for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, replied that shallow gas occurs below permafrost, which is not present in the Arctic OCS. Salerno added that shallow, high-pressure gas is known in the Gulf of Mexico.

Michael LeVine, Pacific Senior Counsel, Oceana, testified that his organization supports the Arctic regulations as important but only incremental steps to protecting the Arctic.In his testimony he noted that the traditional tools for ocean spill cleanup–booms, skimmers and burning–do not function in the presence of ice.

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