Hot news from a cold ocean: an update on drilling in the Arctic Ocean

Whales in the Beaufort Sea

There aren’t many times that the Arctic Ocean can be referred to as “hot” – but a recent flurry of news and activity about potential oil drilling is making the icy waters of the Arctic a hot story.

The developments include a fresh threat from energy giant Shell and a recently-issued, flawed analysis from the new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE).

First the news from the Beaufort Sea – located north of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska: Shell has submitted a proposal to BOEMRE (formerly the Minerals Management Service) to drill an exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea. This may sound familiar as earlier this year the energy giant was set to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort and neighboring Chukchi Sea until the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in the Obama Administration putting the drilling on hold.

The new Beaufort proposal would utilize an offshore drilling ship, similar to the Deepwater Horizon (but ice-strengthened!), although the drilling would take place in shallow waters. Well blowouts can and do occur in shallow waters.

Many of the risks of drilling and cleanup in the Beaufort are the same as those in the Chukchi: dangerous, icy waters, strong winds, ice, fog, long dark nights, and the lack of shore-based cleanup infrastructure. Unfortunately, one major difference in the Beaufort proposal is the location – adjacent to the pristine coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This means that, very productive Arctic Refuge coastal lagoons and its marine protected area are threatened by oil and gas development, putting endangered bowhead whales and endangered polar bears at risk from an oil catastrophe as well as countless seals, walruses, and birds.

In the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska there is also bad news, although in this case it is a document from the federal government that is raising concerns.

In July and August, 2010, a federal district court ruled that the former Minerals Management Service (MMS) had violated the National Environmental Policy Act in its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Chukchi drilling. MMS failed to assess the importance of missing information, to collect that information if it was reasonably available, and to analyze the impacts of natural gas development in the Chukchi Sea before offering oil and gas leases there in 2008. It sent the EIS back to MMS, now BOEMRE, and directed BOEMRE to identify which missing information about the Chukchi Sea was important to the lease sale decision and to obtain as much of the missing information as possible.

Just months after the court’s dual decisions, BOEMRE released its draft Supplemental EIS (SEIS) which does not contain the missing information and argues that the information is not necessary for decision-making. Given that the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling and the U.S. Geological Survey soon will issue reports containing important technical and scientific information and recommendations on drilling, cleanup, and the Arctic Ocean biota, it is perplexing why BOEMRE rushed out the draft SEIS. This decision conflicts with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s very visible and recent efforts to reform BOEMRE and to ensure scientific integrity in the Department’s decision-making.

The proposed Chukchi drilling site is more than 800 miles by air from the nearest US Coast Guard facility that could assist in cleanup of an oil spill – or could rescue rig workers in case of an emergency.

The Department of the Interior, which oversees the BOEMRE, should strongly examine the agency’s actions, and take another look at how the Arctic Ocean is managed. The unspoiled waters of the Arctic – an important food source for the Arctic’s residents -- are too valuable to risk.

Whales in the Beaufort Sea, courtesy of NOAA