The Obama administration has proposed the first-ever safety regulations for drilling in the U.S. portion of the Arctic Ocean, where big oil companies have long been hoping to lay their claim.
The proposed rule, which is preliminary and is expected to take at least a year to reach its final version, would for the first time impose specific requirements on oil companies that want to take the plunge into the Arctic’s icy waters. Among those are requirements for companies to have contingency plans for mishaps — companies must be able to “promptly deploy” emergency containment equipment to deal with a spill, and must build a second rig close to their initial operations so a relief well could be drilled in the event of a blowout, among other things.
Only exploratory drilling is covered by the rule, not large-scale production, which is not expected to be approved for another few years. Thirteen percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30 percent of its undiscovered gas — up to 160 billion barrels of oil — are thought to be held in the Arctic.
On the one hand, environmentalists are glad that some kind of safety rule has been proposed, but on the other, they are queasy about the prospect of drilling in one of the most environmentally sensitive and isolated areas of the world. One of the loudest criticisms of Arctic drilling is that oil spills there would be notoriously hard to clean — weather conditions are frigid and often unpredictable. In a 2011 report, Canada’s National Energy Board found that even during the warm season, cleanup conditions are not possible about 20 percent of the time in June, 40 percent of the time in August and 65 percent of the time in October.
Most environmental groups point to Royal Dutch Shell’s disastrous attempt to drill in the Arctic in 2012 as reason for their concern. While the company was towing its Kulluk oil rig out into Dutch Harbor via ship, a harsh winter storm hit and the ship lost control of the rig. The rig, along with 150,000 gallons of fuel and drilling fluid, then washed up on an island along one of Alaska’s pristine coastlines.
Climate change is also often cited as a problem. Though the warming oceans and atmosphere is gradually making it easier for ships to foray into Arctic waters, drilling there has been shown pose further risks to the climate, via the continued burning of fossil fuels and released of black carbon and methane from the drilling process itself.
“There is no proven way to respond to a spill in icy Arctic waters and, as Shell unfortunately demonstrated, companies simply are not ready for the Arctic Ocean,” Susan Murray, Ocean’s deputy vice president for the Pacific, told the Guardian. “Until and unless companies can operate safely and without harming the Arctic Ocean ecosystem, the government has no business allowing them into the region.”
Still, the U.S. government has allowed at least three companies into the region, one of which is Shell. Despite its mishap in 2012, the company still has its initial permits from the U.S Department of Interior, which in 2011 gave it permission to drill four shallow-water wells there. Though it is facing lawsuits over those permits, Shell still hopes to begin drilling by this summer, long before the rules are expected to be finalized.
Statoil and ConocoPhillips also own leases in the U.S. Arctic, but neither have released plans to drill there in the immediate future. No company is currently drilling there.