Standards proposed for oil exploration in Arctic waters

standardsVESSELS capable of withstanding crushing blows from icebergs are just one specialised resource required for oil exploration in Arctic waters, according to the recent report Arctic Standards: Recommendations on oil spill prevention, response and safety in the US Arctic Ocean from independent non-profit organisation The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The report was released as the US Department of the Interior announced it would draft a formal proposal of minimum standards for oil and gas activity in the nation’s Arctic waters, taking into account some of the steps Shell took when drilling in seas north of Alaska during 2012.
Due for release by the end of the year, the minimum standards would allow companies with oil and gas leases in US Arctic waters to decide if they wanted to pursue drilling.
The region presents a unique set of challenges, including access issues, due to rough terrain, dense fog in summer and a thick sheet of ice covering the waters for most of the year; the nearest major port is more than 1000 miles away and most offshore oil and gas equipment, including drilling rigs, are designed for use in more temperate conditions.
The Pew Charitable Trusts called on federal regulators to impose baseline standards that would govern offshore oil and gas activity in the region.
Marilyn Heiman, a former Interior Department official who now serves as director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ US Arctic Program, stated there should be “consistent standards in regulation” that every company operating in the Arctic would be required to meet.
“It shouldn’t be discretionary, and it shouldn’t be what is recommended by the industry,” Ms Heiman said.
“It should be very clear up front what is required so it is clear to the public and to the industry what they need to do to drill in the Arctic.”
The Arctic Standards report stated that industrial development in Arctic waters brought a new set of obstacles and a larger set of risks than other oceans because people and machinery would be working in some of the most remote and harsh conditions on the planet.
“Anyone doing business in the Arctic needs to be prepared for self-rescue,” Ms Heiman said.
“Inadequate infrastructure and punishing weather could seriously delay the arrival of additional vessels, equipment, people, or other help.”
The report stated that oil spills in Arctic waters would be particularly difficult to remove, as current technology had not been proved to effectively clean up oil when mixed with ice or trapped underneath it.
One of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ 80 recommendations was for energy companies to have immediate access to emergency equipment for capping and containing blow-outs, and to allow captured oil to flow to surface processing vessels.
Although currently on hold, oil giant Shell’s activities in the Arctic represent billions of dollars worth of investment. Upon completing top-hole drilling on two wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas last year, one of Shell’s drilling rigs was grounded in “strong weather conditions” and taken to Asia to undergo repairs.
“We’ve made progress in Alaska, but this is a long-term program that we are pursuing in a safe and measured way,” Shell director of Upstream Americas Marvin Odum said at the time.
Shell was widely criticised for its activities in the Arctic region, and fined for air pollution violations.
Despite this, Shell’s oil response plan for its Arctic drilling activities was recently upheld by a US Federal judge.