The US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) approved Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc.’s Chukchi Sea oil spill response plan in one of four US Department of the Interior actions aimed at limited exploration in shallow Arctic waters during a limited period this summer.
Interior also announced coordinated exercises and emergency response planning by US agencies in the Arctic; expanded scientific work, information collection, and data sharing among agencies, industry, and research institutions to inform Arctic planning; and commencement of long-term, landscape-scale planning for the Arctic.
“In the Arctic frontier, cautious exploration—under the strongest oversight, safety requirements, and emergency response plans ever established—can help us expand our understanding of the area and its resources, and support our goal of continuing to increase safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production,” US Interior Sec. Ken Salazar said. “We are taking a cautious approach, one that will help inform the wise decisions of tomorrow.”
BSEE’s approval of Shell’s plan follows the bureau’s thorough review of the plan and consultations with state and other federal agencies involved in Arctic preparedness, according to the agency.
It said consistent with regulatory requirements developed following the 2010 Macondo deepwater well’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Shell had to prepare for a worst case discharge nearly five times that of its previous plan, to include planning for adverse weather conditions, and to develop special equipment and strategies which could respond to a loss of well control and a spill.
Shell committed to provide for the availability of a capping stack to shut off any flow of oil if shut-off systems fail, the capability to capture and collect oil from that stack, and access to a rig capable of drilling a relief well if necessary, BSEE said. It added that the approval does not authorize commencement of drilling since Shell still must get the agency’s approval for well-specific drilling permits, and BSEE must inspect and approve equipment which has been designed and deployed for the effort before activities commence.
BSEE said it also plans to analyze the relevant reservoir pressures that are likely to be encountered during any exploratory drilling. These pressures are known based on information collected during exploratory drilling activity that has occurred in previous years in similar Chukchi Sea reservoirs, it indicated.
The agency said it also imposed a requirement that Shell terminate drilling into any hydrocarbon-bearing zones 38 days prior to Nov. 1 so that if an accident occurred, all capping, response, and well-killing operations could be conducted in open water before ice forms in Chukchi waters.
Alaska’s two US senators applauded BSEE’s action. “Today’s decision confirms what we’ve known for some time—that Shell has put together a robust and comprehensive spill prevention and response plan that offers the highest level of environmental protection,” said Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who is ranking minority member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “This represents great news for Alaska and the entire country. I cannot overstate the opportunity that Arctic exploration offers in terms of jobs and energy security.”
Democrat Mark Begich, Alaska’s junior senator, said, “After 3 years of hard work with federal agencies, we have cleared another hurdle toward oil and gas development in Alaska this summer,” He added that US Coast Guard Rear Admiral Thomas P. Ostebo and BSEE Director James Watson briefed him last week on what their agencies were doing. “Alaskans should be assured the federal government is taking this seriously and has plans in place,” Begich said.
Salazar also highlighted federal agencies’ work to assure that the full scope of federal command and control capabilities are in place should an accident occur during the limited period for potential exploratory drilling. USCG, which would be in charge of those command and control activities, has committed to an on-scene, at-sea presence with land-based support if drilling goes forward this summer, he said.
Command and control activity would proceed with support from BSEE, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other federal agencies in conformance with Alaska North Slope area contingency plans which have recently been revised and updated, and should be finalized in the next few weeks, the secretary said. The plans include the identification of sensitive ecological resources in the region and outline protection strategies, and several exercises have also taken place and more are planned, he indicated.
Salazar also underscored several initiatives aimed at bringing the best available science to energy-related decisions in the Arctic, including calling on companies to gather Arctic-related data and make it publicly available to assist decision-making. He said that DOI, NOAA and Shell have identified a large body of data that the company will be expected to develop and make available if it moves ahead with exploratory drilling next summer, including information relating to marine mammal routes, sea currents, ice and weather forecasting, and data about the offshore and onshore ecosystem and cultural resources.
“Every step forward in the Arctic must both be supported by the best science available and serve to expand our knowledge and understanding of this new frontier,” said Deputy Interior Secretary David J. Hayes, who also chairs the federal interagency working group coordinating domestic energy development and permitting in Alaska. The group will hold a second meeting this spring with scientists, nongovernmental organizations, industry officials, Native Alaskans, and state and federal decision-makers to enhance collaboration between the scientific community and decision-makers.
The fourth component of the approach Salazar outlined relates to long-term, landscape-scale planning for the Arctic. The secretary particularly emphasized the need to jump-start the US commitment to developing an ecosystem-based management framework for the Arctic region, as recently agreed to by the eight-nation Arctic Council.
Contact Nick Snow at email@example.com.