Arctic drilling can be done safely, federal adviser says

Arctic drilling can be done safely, as long as the oil industry takes a balanced approach and works with local stakeholders and federal regulators, said the head of a federal panel investigating the issue.

“I’m not uncomfortable if it proceeds in a very balanced way and with a significant amount of oversight . . . and a lot of engagement with the local stakeholders,” said Tom Hunter, the chairman of the federal Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee established after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The panel has submitted its final recommendations for boosting offshore drilling safety to the Interior Department, including a proposal for a permanent ocean energy safety institute and Arctic-specific standards governing oil development in the frontier area.

Hunter, the former director of the Sandia National Laboratory, made his comments during an interview on Platts Energy Week.

Although oil companies drilled some 30 wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska in the 1980s and ’90s, there was a long pause before Shell launched a new round of drilling in those waters last year. The company drilled the first 1,500 feet of two wells, but its hopes to return this year depend on whether regulators approve the work and it can repair the Kulluk conical drilling unit that grounded on an Alaskan island on New Year’s Eve.

Hunter said the work so far is proceeding on “a very measured pace.” And, he insisted, that’s a good thing.

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“If you keep the pace very measured — if you keep the activities on a balanced course, (including) starting initial operations in the early drilling season, which went on this last year, and then learning from that and improving our operations going forward — I think it can be done in a balanced way, and I think it can be done effectively,” Hunter said.

Hunter said regulators need to be on guard and people in neighboring communities have to be engaged in the work.

Outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered a “high-level” review of Arctic drilling, following the Kulluk grounding and other mishaps during Shell’s work last year, including the failure of its oil spill containment system during a deployment drill in Seattle and the drifting of its drillship Noble Discoverer before its trip to the Chukchi Sea.

Right now, there are no specific mandates governing oil exploration or development in the region — including guidelines for public review of spill response plans, the design of wells, what emergency equipment must be on scene and how pipelines should be constructed.

Hunter said the oil industry has come a long way since 2010, when engineers furiously innovated equipment to contain the runaway Macondo well on the fly. But, he said, there’s still more work to be done.

Current technology “is adequate” for combating most drilling mishaps now, he told Platts. But the challenge is keeping up with industry as it moves into ever-more-challenging frontiers.

“As things become more complex, as drilling enters different environment, as depths become greater, as pressures become greater, there will be (more) need for ever-improving technology,” Hunter said.