Building on the Obama Administration's record of taking steps to expand safe and responsible development of our nation's oil and gas resources, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced the next steps toward energy exploration activities in shallow waters in the Arctic during a limited period this summer. Today's announcement is informed by the latest science, and continues to be guided by important new safety standards as well as lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Those steps include: today's approval by DOI's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) of Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc.'s (Shell) Oil Spill Response Plan (OSRP) for the Chukchi Sea; coordinated exercises and emergency response planning by U.S. agencies in the Arctic; expanded scientific work, information collection and data sharing among agencies, industry, and research institutions to inform Arctic planning; and undertaking long-term, landscape-scale planning for the Arctic.
These steps are the latest in a series of initiatives in line with President Obama's commitment to an all-of-the-above energy approach, which includes a focus on the safe and responsible production of homegrown oil and natural gas resources by American workers.
"Alaska's energy resources -- onshore and offshore, conventional and renewable -- hold great promise and economic opportunity for the people of Alaska and across the nation," said Secretary Salazar. "In the Arctic frontier, cautious exploration -- under the strongest oversight, safety requirements, and emergency response plans ever established -- can help us expand our understanding of the area and its resources, and support our goal of continuing to increase safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production. We are taking a cautious approach, one that will help inform the wise decisions of tomorrow."
Preparedness and Oversight of Shell's Proposed Exploration Activities
BSEE's approval today of Shell's OSRP for the Chukchi Sea follows the bureau's thorough review of the plan and consultations with federal and state partner agencies involved in Arctic preparedness. Consistent with new regulatory requirements implemented in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Shell was required to prepare for a worst case discharge nearly five times that of their previous plan, to include planning for adverse weather conditions, and to develop special equipment and strategies that could respond to a loss of well control and a spill.
Shell has committed to provide for the following emergency contingencies: (1) the availability of a capping stack to shut off any flow of oil if other shut-off systems fail; (2) the capability to capture and collect oil from that stack; and (3) access to a rig capable of drilling a relief well that could kill the well, if necessary. The ready availability of a capping stack and an oil collection system are new commitments that apply lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy to offshore oil and gas production activities.
Shell has proposed drilling up to six wells in the Chukchi Sea during the next two summer open water seasons within the Burger Prospect, located about 70 miles off the coast in approximately 140 feet of water.
"After an exhaustive review, we have confidence that Shell's plan includes the necessary equipment and personnel pre-staging, training, logistics and communications to act quickly and mount an effective response should a spill occur," said BSEE Director James A. Watson. "Our staff will maintain vigilant oversight over Shell to ensure that they adhere to this plan, and that all future drilling operations are conducted safely with a focus toward spill prevention."
The approval issued today does not authorize Shell to begin drilling; Shell must still seek and obtain approval from BSEE for well-specific drilling permits prior to commencing operations, and BSEE would inspect and approve equipment that has been designed and deployed for the effort, including Shell's capping stack, before activities could go forward.
Additional steps have been taken in conjunction with the review and approval of Shell's exploration and response plans, including: (1) an analysis of the relevant reservoir pressures that are likely to be encountered during any exploratory drilling; these pressures are known based on information collected during exploratory drilling activity that has occurred in previous years in similar reservoirs in the Chukchi Sea; and (2) a requirement that Shell terminate drilling into any hydrocarbon-bearing zones 38 days prior to November 1 so that if an accident were to occur, all capping, response and well killing operations could be conducted in open water before ice forms in Chukchi waters.
For a fact sheet on the spill response requirements for Shell, go to: http://www.bsee.gov/BSEE-Newsroom/BSEE-Fact-Sheet/OSRP-Fact-Sheet.aspx.
Coordination and Readiness of U.S. Resources
Secretary Salazar today also highlighted the unprecedented work of U.S. agencies to ensure that the full scope of federal command and control capabilities are in place in the event that an accident occurred during the limited period allowed for potential exploratory drilling. If drilling is allowed to go forward, the Coast Guard would be in charge of overall command and control activities. The Coast Guard has committed to an on-scene, at-sea presence, with land-based support, in the event that exploratory drilling goes forward this summer. The Coast Guard's command and control activities, supported by BSEE, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other federal agencies, would proceed in conformance with federally-mandated contingency plans for the North Slope area that have recently been revised and updated, and which are expected to be finalized in the coming weeks. Those plans include the identification of sensitive ecological resources in the region and outline protection strategies.
Several exercises have also taken place and more are planned. For the last several summers, the Coast Guard has deployed vessels, aircraft and personnel to North Slope areas to practice operations in the area and work with local officials and citizens. On Dec. 8, 2011, members of the Coast Guard and the State of Alaska conducted an Incident Command Post workshop with Shell personnel to improve oil spill preparedness. BSEE is planning an additional exercise with Shell and federal, state and local representatives in spring 2012. In addition, the Alaska Regional Response Team (ARRT), which is made up of 12 federal agencies and the State of Alaska, is planning an exercise that will test ARRT processes for responding to an incident. Finally, BSEE will conduct a deployment test of Shell's capping stack prior to the approval of Shell's drilling permit application, as well as on-site unannounced inspections of deployed spill response equipment.
For information on the federal government's preparedness and response coordination efforts, go to: http://www.bsee.gov/BSEE-Newsroom/BSEE-Fact-Sheet/Arctic-Fact-Sheet.aspx.
Expanding and Sharing Scientific Information to Guide Arctic Decisions
As part of today's announcement, Salazar underscored several initiatives aimed at bringing the best available science to energy-related decisions in the Arctic. They focus on the importance of continuing to gather new data, building on the extensive information that already exists on the Arctic, and making it available for decision-makers, state, tribal and local officials, nongovernmental organizations, and the general public. Among other things, companies engaging in activity in the Arctic will be called upon gather and make publicly available Arctic-related data that will increase the information base available for future Arctic decision-making. For more information about last week's announcements, go to: http://www.doi.gov/news/pressreleases/Deputy-Secretary-Hayes-Outlines-Administrations-Commitment-to-Science-Based-Decision-Making-in-the-Arctic.cfm.
The Department of the Interior, NOAA and Shell have identified a large body of data that the company will be expected to develop and make available if it moves ahead with exploratory drilling next summer, including information relating to marine mammal routes, sea currents, ice and weather forecasting, and data about the offshore and onshore ecosystem and cultural resources.
"Every step forward in the Arctic must both be supported by the best science available and serve to expand our knowledge and understanding of this new frontier," said Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes, who, in his capacity as Chair of the Interagency Working Group on Coordination of Domestic Energy Development and Permitting in Alaska, will convene a meeting this spring -- the second of its kind -- with scientists, nongovernmental organizations, industry officials, Native Alaskans, and state and federal decision-makers to enhance collaboration between the scientific community and decision-makers in the Arctic. "It is vital that as much information as possible be shared openly, so that scientists and decision-makers can benefit from the rapidly growing body of data in the Arctic."
Landscape-Scale Planning for the Arctic
A fourth component of the approach Salazar outlined today relates to long-term, landscape-scale planning for the Arctic. In particular, Salazar emphasized the need to jump-start the U.S. commitment to developing an ecosystem-based management framework for the Arctic region, as recently agreed to by the eight-nation Arctic Council.
"The Arctic's remarkable resources call for a landscape-scale approach to management that cuts across agencies, jurisdictions, and boundaries," said Salazar. "We need to work toward a long-term management framework for the Arctic that recognizes both the resource potential of the region and the irreplaceable natural bounty it contains, from the caribou herds of Teshekpuk Lake to the migratory birds that annually travel thousands of miles to the Arctic."
Hayes said the Interagency Working Group, working in coordination with the Arctic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) and other science/management collaboratives, will explore the implementation of an ecosystem-based management framework for the Alaska Arctic that would focus on particularly important ecological areas that support special wildlife, land or water resources, as well as areas important for the subsistence and culture of local communities.
As an example of unique, ecologically important areas, Salazar noted that the Department is actively considering options to protect the home of the northern hemisphere's largest concentration of nesting migratory birds in the 1.7 million acre Teshekpuk Lake area of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA). The Interior Department is in the final stages of completing a draft plan for the NPRA that will identify potential protections for the unique avian and terrestrial resources in the greater Teshekpuk Lake area, including 45 species of birds that rely on one of the most ecologically important wetlands in the entire Arctic, including habitat for tens of thousands of molting geese, snowy owls, and threatened species like the Spectacled Eider. The Teshekpuk Lake area also is home to the 45,000-head Teshekpuk Lake Caribou Herd.