The Interior Department on Friday approved an oil-spill response plan for Shell’s pending drilling operations in the Chukchi Sea – an important and controversial step toward opening the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska for oil and gas exploration.
“After an exhaustive review, we have confidence that Shell’s plan includes the necessary equipment and personnel prestaging, training, logistics and communications to act quickly and mount an effective response should a spill occur,” said James Watson, director of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
“Our staff will maintain vigilant oversight over Shell to ensure that they adhere to this plan and that all future drilling operations are conducted safely with a focus toward spill prevention,” Watson said.
Shell, which has proposed drilling up to six wells in the Chukchi Sea starting this summer and continuing next summer, has included in its provisions the plan to cap the flow of oil in the event of an oil spill as well as the capability to capture and collect that oil and have a rig available to drill a relief well. These provisions apply lessons learned from the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.
“We recognize that industry’s license to operate in the offshore is predicated on being able to operate in a safe, environmentally sound manner,” Pete Slaiby, Shell’s Alaska exploration manager said in a statement. “Shell’s commitment to those basic principles is unwavering.”
In order to begin drilling this July, Shell still needs to acquire "incidental harassment authorizations" from the National Marine Fisheries Service freeing the company from liability for incidental disturbance of marine life, and it needs letters of authorization from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition, Interior must still give final approval to drilling permits after Shell demonstrates that its capping and containment equipment is ready to go.
If Shell's plans are approved, it will be the first drilling in federal waters off the coast of Alaska, giving President Obama a campaign talking point on how his administration supports new domestic oil production.
The administration’s push forward comes despite arguments by environmental groups that an oil spill in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean, miles away from infrastructure to support cleanup operations, could cause far more environmental damage than the disastrous BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, the Ocean Conservancy, and the Alaska Wilderness League have specifically questioned the abililities of industry and government to respond to a spill in the extreme conditions of the Arctic Ocean.
“This approval is disappointing,” Andrew Hartsig, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic program, said in a statement.
“The risks and potential impacts associated with this Arctic offshore oil development plan are currently unacceptably high and unmanageable,” added Layla Hughes of WWF’s Arctic program.
Still, the news was well received by Alaska's lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“We think that they’re quite capable of moving forward,” said Robert Dillon, spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “Shell has done more than any other company or entity in the world,” he told National Journal.
Murkowski is well aware of the complicated drilling environment in the Arctic and understands that there is no trial-and-error period, Dillon said. “We only get one shot at this,” he said. “We want to make sure that it’s done right.”
“Alaskans should be assured the federal government is taking this seriously and has plans in place,” said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.