Alaskans want role in feds’ Arctic drilling probe

Alaskans are imploring the Obama administration for a seat at the table as the Interior Department conducts a high-level review of Shell’s Arctic drilling operations.

The probe, set to be concluded in March, could dictate whether Shell OIl Co., is allowed to continue hunting for crude under the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska.

The company experienced several high-profile mishaps during its 2012 season, including the out-of-control drift of the drillship Noble Discoverer, violations of federal pollution permits and the grounding of Shell’s Kulluk drilling rig on New Year’s Eve.

The federal probe makes sense, said Daniel Sullivan, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, and Charlotte Brower, mayor of the North Slope Borough, in a letter to Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes. But Alaskans should be a part of it, they stressed.

“Given the importance of this review to the future of the state and (the) North Slope Borough, we request that officials from the state and borough be included on the panel undertaking this review,” the pair said. “As residents of the Arctic we have a vested interest in the safety of future OCS operations and look forward to providing our expertise in this matter to assist your review.”

After all, they noted, state agencies and workers were a major part of the response to the Kulluk grounding “and have valuable expertise in operations and crisis management in Alaska’s unique environment.”

The North Slope Borough spans a 95,000-square mile area — roughly the size of Michigan — and eight villages including Barrow, a major launchpad for Arctic operations.

The North Slope Borough and state also have a long history regulating oil and gas operations in waters around Alaska, including parts of the Beaufort Sea near the state’s northern coast.

Brower is scheduled to meet with Hayes on Wednesday to press the issue in person.

Sullivan and Brower also made a pitch to keep Arctic oil development on track. While those projects shouldn’t be rushed, and corners shouldn’t be cut on “high environmental standards,” they said, “recent events should not foreclose the opportunities of the outer continental shelf.”

“Learning from recent events so that mistakes do not happen and safety is increased … is the answer, not more federal regulatory delay,” the pair said.

In announcing the probe on Jan. 8, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar emphasized that the Obama administration “is fully committed to exploring for potential in energy resources in frontier areas, such as the Arctic.”

But the Interior Department said the inquiry, designed to examine Shell’s oversight of contractors and its ability to meet standards governing Arctic drilling, “will help inform future permitting processes in the region.”

Hayes is leading an interagency task force dedicated to coordinating on Arctic energy development. At a meeting of an offshore safety advisory panel earlier this month, Hayes said a major goal is to continue to work with local stakeholders on issues related to Arctic energy development.

But Sullivan and Brower stressed that they haven’t always felt included.

An “ongoing frustration felt by borough and state officials has been the lack of consultation when the federal government undertakes major decisions affecting Alaska and the Arctic,” the pair said in their letter to Hayes.

“All too often . . . discussions and decisions in these matters are too far removed from the expertise and knowledge of local people,” Brower said separately. “Now, more than ever, our involvement is necessary to ensure that federal reviews and permitting include the voices of those who are the most impacted.”