Oil spill panel says Arctic offshore drilling should go forward

The Anchorage Daily NewsJanuary 11, 2011 

The White House-appointed oil spill commission on Tuesday said gaps in research about Arctic waters do not justify a "de facto moratorium" on oil and gas development off Alaska’s northern coast.

However, the commission declined to weigh in on the most pressing matter involving drilling in Arctic waters: Royal Dutch Shell’s ambition to drill wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer.

The seven-member commission — including one Alaskan, outgoing University of Alaska Anchorage chancellor Fran Ulmer — published its final report on last year’s fatal explosion and massive leak from a Gulf of Mexico oil exploration rig on Tuesday morning.

The commission’s task included advising the federal government on how to reduce risks from offshore oil and gas development, including in the Arctic.

"It’s a high-risk business but we can make it safer," Ulmer said.

The commission took into account lessons from the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill, the biggest spill in U.S. waters until it was eclipsed by BP’s rig disaster last summer, Ulmer said in an interview.

For example, the commission recommended creating citizens’ councils in the Gulf region similar to the one that watchdogs the oil industry in Prince William Sound.

An citizens’ council to monitor Arctic drilling would also be useful, Ulmer said.

Dozens of Alaskans with expertise in preventing, cleaning up and studying the toxic impact of oil spills contacted Ulmer and offered valuable input to the commission, she said.

"I could help connect people. I think that was part of why I was appointed in the first place, so that the lessons from that tragedy could help in this tragedy," she said.

During her travels to the Gulf region as a commissioner, Ulmer said she saw a number of Alaskans assisting with the cleanup. Meeting with the Gulf region’s residents, she said she saw from them the same tears and feelings of loss and betrayal that she observed in Alaska 20 years ago as a state legislator in the aftermath of the Exxon spill. Ulmer served on a legislative committee that investigated the Exxon spill.

Despite previous boasts about the offshore oil industry’s track record in U.S. waters, the fatality rate is four times higher in U.S. waters than in European waters, Ulmer said, citing data the commission collected from industry trade groups.

If Congress doesn’t enact drill-rig safety reforms — as it did to improve tanker safety after the Exxon spill — more major spills from rigs will occur, she said.

ARCTIC FRICTION

Arctic drilling was one of the most difficult and fractious issues examined during the commission’s six months of work, which included a listening session in Anchorage last year, the commission said.

But, weighing in on Shell’s drilling proposals for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas was not the commission’s job, it said.

"We felt we didn’t have all of the information one should have to make those decisions (about Shell) and we weren’t asked to do that by the president," Ulmer said.

Shell in 2008 paid more than $2 billion for its oil exploration leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi.

After several years of litigation and opposition from some North Slope villages and environmental groups, the oil giant had hoped to drill a couple of wells on its leases in the Beaufort this summer. But to do that, the company still needs permits and other authorizations from federal agencies. Regulators recently pulled one of the key permits to make changes.

ALASKA RECOMMENDATIONS

Though the commission did not weigh in on Shell’s proposals, it did consider what the government should do before auctioning additional leases in the Arctic for oil and gas development.

Many of the commission’s findings released on Tuesday on the Arctic echo previous statements made by regulators and watchdog groups.

For example, the commission joined others who have repeatedly raised concerns about gaps in knowledge about the Arctic environment and the difficulty of mounting a major cleanup due to lack of ports, roads and air strips in the remote region.

Here are some of the commission’s Arctic-related recommendations to the federal government:

• Set a "specific time frame" to address gaps in Arctic research — such as plotting the trajectory of oil spilled in various weather conditions.

• Immediately create a wide-ranging research effort to help regulators make decisions about offshore oil development and monitor its impacts on the environment.

• Fund an interagency research program on oil-spill cleanups in the Arctic.

• Provide resources for the U.S. Coast Guard to respond to spills in the Arctic, and preemptively determine who would be in charge of a spill response.

• Engage in developing international standards for oil and gas activity to be shared by all Arctic nations.

To read the full report later today, go to http://www.oilspillcommission.gov.

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