Some of the world’s most oil-rich land lies deep below the surface of the frigid waters of the Arctic Circle. According to estimates, the Arctic contains 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil.
However, offshore drilling around the Arctic Continental Shelf comes with some very specific and demanding environmental concerns. Past offshore drilling in these waters has occasionally resulted in accidents that caused significant damage to the area’s ecosystem.
The most notorious of these accidents in recent memory happened in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, releasing up to 38 million gallons of crude oil into the waters. As recently as 2012, though, another similar accident happened when the Kulluk ran aground only weeks after Shell Oil made its first offshore drilling voyage into the Arctic in 20 years.
Not only can spills of this kind have devastating consequences for the marine ecosystem, but they also affect the health of civilians living near those waters, as well as that of the crews who have the task of cleaning up the spill.
In response to multiplying worldwide concerns, the U.S. Department of the Interior has developed a new set of offshore regulations for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. The aim of these regulations, which are four years in the making, is to hold the offshore drilling industry to a “thoughtful and balanced” standard in Arctic waters
New Offshore Regulations in the U.S. Arctic Waters
Some of the commission’s 2016 offshore drilling regulations are more stringent versions of previous standards, while some are brand new. The new offshore regulations include the following:
- Oil and gas exploration companies must be able to properly deploy equipment that can control the source and protect the marine environment from output. Examples of this equipment include capping stacks and containment domes.
- Companies must have access to a separate relief rig that can assist if the main rig loses control of the well during offshore drilling.
- Companies must come prepared to predict, track, report, and respond to adverse weather events and conditions such as ice storms.
- Companies must effectively manage and oversee contractors to ensure they adhere to the same standard of responsibility as employees of the rig.
- Companies must create an Oil Spill Response Plan that can be efficiently executed under the unique conditions of the Arctic offshore environment if a spill should take place.
Response from Oil Drilling Industry Leaders
Offshore drilling industry leaders are not altogether pleased by these new offshore regulations. Some have protested that compliance with the new oil drilling regulations will cost them an additional $2 billion over the next decade. Ultimately, it could mean that some oil drilling companies give up Arctic offshore drilling altogether. While this may be safer for the global environment, it could be worse for individual jobs and the nation’s economy.
The American Petroleum Institute, a special interest group, responded to the new offshore drilling regulations with the prediction that these rules might also “inhibit the development of new, improved technologies by suppressing the potential opportunity that drives advancement.”
However, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)—the Interior Department agency responsible for creating the new regulations—countered that they worked closely with the State of Alaska, Native tribes, and various communities and organizations located around Alaska’s North Shore to develop rules that protected American resources and lives from the potential side effects of offshore oil and gas exploration.
“The unique Arctic environment raises substantial operational challenges,” said spokespeople from the BOEM spokespeople from the BOEM. “This rulemaking seeks to ensure that operators prepare for and conduct these operations in a manner that drives down risks and protects both offshore personnel and the pristine Arctic environment.”