Can the Obama Administration Prevent a Deepwater Horizon Disaster in the Arctic Ocean?

The government proposes new regulations, but environmental groups say any oil drilling threatens whales and other marine life.

Waves crash over the Shell drilling rig Kulluk, which ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska in late 2012. (Photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg, USCG/Reuters)

Feb 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Conservationists are giving mixed reviews to the Obama administration’s proposed rules for Arctic Ocean oil drilling.

Some say they are a good first step toward protecting the region’s whales, walruses, seals, and other wildlife. Others question why the Obama administration is keeping the region open to oil drilling at all, creating a new source for the greenhouse gas pollution that is melting the Arctic.

The rules, announced Feb. 20 by the Department of Interior, would require oil drillers to submit to federal regulators Arctic-customized safety plans for every facet of their drilling operations.

Drillers would also have to show themselves capable of sealing a wellhead within 24 hours of a blowout and of building a containment dome over a blown well within seven days.

Operators would also need to be capable of drilling a relief well—to help lower the pressure in a blown well—within 45 days of a blowout and during the same summer drilling season. This would mean having a second drill rig harbored in Alaska, relatively close to the original drilling site.

How to drill safely in the Arctic Ocean is the wrong question, said Franz Matzner, the associate director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The right thing to be asking is ‘Why is it necessary at all?’ ”

“If we’re going to do what the science says is necessary to combat climate change,” Matzner said, “then large reserves of oil and other fossil fuels have to go unburned,” including the oil and gas under the Arctic Ocean seafloor.

Matzner criticized the proposed rules as “theoretical and not based on proven technologies” that would definitely avert oil spill disasters in the tough Arctic environment. They expose both the environment and taxpayers to high risks and costs for no good reason, he said. “It’s a hard question to fathom, why [the Obama administration] would pursue contradictory paths while trying to be a global leader in fighting climate change,” Matzner said.

Marilyn Heiman, director of Arctic projects for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the proposed rules were the minimum needed to protect marine life.

While her organization would prefer no Arctic Ocean drilling at all, Heiman said, companies already have leases in the region that the government must honor.

Peter Van Tuyn, an Anchorage, Alaska–based environmental attorney, said companies should have to prove that their plans and technologies for dealing with an Arctic oil spill would work. That’s something that hasn’t been required to date.

During a storm in the Gulf of Alaska in December 2012, Shell’s oil prospecting rig Kulluk broke away from its tow and ran aground. In 2014, the Shell subsidiary that operated the Kulluk, as well as another oil prospecting ship that broke down in the Arctic, pleaded guilty to eight felonies and paid $12.2 million in fines for breaking environmental and maritime laws.

The proposed safety rules take a good deal of their lineage from the disasters of Shell’s 2012 season. But the company has stated that it intends to return to the region this year.

“As much as I appreciate Interior proposing these rules, and I really do, I’m concerned that the regulatory process won’t be completed before decisions are made about whether Shell can drill in 2015,” Van Tuyn said.

Fossil fuel industry advocates criticized the proposed provision requiring a backup rig. “Exploration and production in the Arctic is not new, and technology already in place is proven to protect the environment,” said American Petroleum Institute director of upstream Erik Milito in a statement.

The Obama administration recently announced its intention to lease three areas off Alaska for drilling, two in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas and one in Cook Inlet, the home of a declining, endangered population of beluga whales.