Protections not in place to drill safely in the Beaufort Sea
Despite the lack of needed spill prevention measures and effective cleanup technologies for the Arctic, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) today issued conditional approval for Shell Offshore Inc. to drill up to four shallow-water exploration wells in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea beginning in July 2012. Shell still needs to obtain other federal permits on specific drilling-related issues before proceeding.
“Because Congress and the Obama Administration have not implemented many significant post-BP spill reforms, we are not confident that everything is being done that can be done to prevent major spills in the Arctic. Shell’s word that the company is trying to prevent spills is not good enough,” said Lois Epstein, an engineer and Arctic Program Director at The Wilderness Society and a member of the federal Offshore Energy Safety Advisory Committee. Reforms recommended by the National Oil Spill Commission in January include the need for adequate, stable, and secure funding to key regulatory agencies, whistleblower protections, and new regulations for blowout preventers.
According to The Wilderness Society’s Alaska Regional Director Nicole Whittington-Evans, “This decision threatens Alaska’s Arctic environment, its wildlife and its coastal communities. A major spill could impact bowhead whales and other marine life which Arctic communities have relied on as food sources for thousands of years, and could adversely impact sensitive coastline belonging to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”
While the BP spill in the Gulf was in deep water, blowouts can and do occur in shallow water as in the Arctic. Additionally, while BOEMRE does have spill response requirements, only a very small percentage of oil has been recovered during past spills. Conditions in the Arctic are even more challenging for spill response than elsewhere due to ice blocks that inhibit oil recovery and make ship travel more dangerous, as well as fog, winds, and cold water that decreases bacterial growth.
“To make matters worse, with no coastal zone management program in existence in Alaska to help ensure local input and governmental transparency, and only a limited Environmental Assessment performed, this approval is entirely premature,” added Epstein.