NOAA official outlines Arctic offshore drilling lessons needs

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other federal agencies worked hard in the 18 months leading up to the 2012 Arctic offshore drilling season and came away with important lessons when it ended and a better idea of its future needs, a NOAA official told a US Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Oct. 11.

In written testimony, Laura K. Furgione, acting director of NOAA’s National Weather Service, said NOAA realized more than ever that it’s necessary to consider the variability of the rapidly changing Arctic and shifting historical baseline when making decisions; to appropriately weigh oil and gas development impacts on Alaska, especially North Slope and Native communities; and to increase existing collaboration and communication to improve efficiency and integrated science-based decision-making.

“Federal investments are needed as we plan for energy companies to move from exploratory activities into what is anticipated to be high-volume production over the coming days,” she told the committee’s Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee at an Anchorage field hearing.

Officials need to use enhanced environmental observations to better understand how the rapidly changing Arctic environment can withstand industrial pressures, Furgione suggested.

“We need more access to research platforms and ship time that will improve our knowledge and understanding of the increasing dynamic Arctic environment,” she said, adding, “We need to improve our understanding of how oil and potential spill response methods, such as dispersants, will behave and affect Arctic species.”

AIWG’s contribution

The Alaska Interagency Working Group, which US President Barack Obama established in July 2011 to coordinate federal oil and gas decision-making in Alaska, already has had positive impacts, according to its chairman, Deputy US Interior Secretary David J. Hayes.

“It has consistently helped to facilitate coordination and collaboration between agencies as they considered requests by Shell [Offshore Co.] related to [its] proposed exploratory and drilling activities in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas,” he said in his written testimony.

Hayes said AIWG also provide a forum where Alaska natives, cities and towns, and other stakeholders could express concerns and offer ideas. “This feedback helped agencies develop the specific conditions for program approvals—for example, a measure included in the approval of Shell’s Chukchi Sea exploration plan designed to mitigate an end-of-season oil spill by requiring Shell to leave sufficient time to implement cap and containment operations as well as a significant cleanup before the onset of sea ice in the event of a loss in well control,” he said.

Regulators’ experience organizing, testing, and deploying emergency response equipment, vessels and personnel to prepare for the past summer’s Arctic offshore drilling activities will serve them well, Hayes said. “We also expect that this summer’s activities will yield important information about weather and sea ice conditions, coastal and ocean currents, [and] biological data, as well as sea floor mapping,” he said.

Obama has asked AIWG to report by yearend on progress establishing a centralized scientific information hub to inform decision-makers and the public, and development of a framework to build a more integrated approach to evaluate potential infrastructure development in the Alaskan Arctic, Hayes told the subcommittee.

Delays in 2012

Peter E. Slaiby, vice-president of Shell Alaska, said it took years before it began drilling its Chukchi Sea leases on Sept. 9. Slow melting of multiyear sea ice near its leases and storm-caused delays getting its fleet to Alaska shortened the drilling season and led Shell to drill top holes in its Alaska Arctic offshore leases, he said in his written testimony.

“For 2013, our approved exploration plan allows for a similar fleet and personnel deployment [to 2012] so that we can drill wells and make hydrocarbon discoveries,” Slaiby said. “The lessons learned from 2012’s complex logistics fleet and personnel deployment are significant. Shell is incorporating these lessons into our even more robust 2013 plans.”

Regulatory improvements still need to be made, he continued. Slaiby recommended that federal energy and infrastructure permitting be handled by a single office; federal agencies be fully resourced, staff, and deliver information in a timely manner; and requirements be based on science and not change “in the middle of the game” without some compelling reason. Congress should also improve the federal litigation system so project opponents can’t abuse it, he added.

ANS Borough Chief Administrative Office Jacob Adams, meanwhile, warned that while development of ANS oil resources on state land economically benefited native and other communities there, that won’t necessarily be the case for Alaska Arctic offshore areas which are federally controlled.

“I see this as one of the greatest challenges facing the people of the North Slope,” he said in his written testimony. “It seems difficult for the federal government to justify why the people of Alaska are not entitled to the same economic benefits as the residents of the Gulf Coast states…. Congress should act to ensure that royalty revenue received from [Alaska Arctic Outer Continental Shelf] developed is shared with local communities to help mitigate the negative impacts of development.”

Edith Vorderstrasse, consulting division manager for the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp., and Rear Adm. Thomas P. Ostebo, commander of the US Coast Guard’s 17th District, also testified. A number of Alaska environmental groups issued statements protesting their representatives not being called as witnesses.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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