Environmentalists push for broader Arctic drilling probe

Environmentalists say President Barack Obama’s nominee for Interior secretary should heed comments from more than 500,000 Americans who have spoken out against Arctic drilling.

The protests, delivered as part of a coordinated campaign to “defend America’s Arctic,” came as the Interior Department was conducting a high-level review of Shell’s 2012 drilling program. That probe, finalized earlier this month, ultimately concluded that Shell did a poor job of overseeing contractors during its hunt for oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas last year, contributing to a series of embarrassing mishaps.

Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups led the comment drive, asking supporters to convey their opposition to Arctic drilling to Obama and his outgoing Interior secretary, Ken Salazar. Comments ranged from outright opposition to tepid support for oil exploration in the region only if it can be proved safe, something many critics say is impossible.

“The administration should not make any new decisions until it has completed a more thorough review of all drilling operations in the Arctic, implemented the most rigorous standards and determined whether and under what conditions to allow offshore drilling,” the groups said in a joint statement. “As nominee for secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell should … make sure that the Interior Department does not make the same mistakes again, acting immediately to put a pause in the Arctic until this in-depth review is complete.”

During a confirmation hearing earlier this month, Jewell said she supported a careful approach to Arctic exploration and repeatedly pledged to seek a middle ground on divisive issues involving oil drilling, environmental protection and conservation of federal lands.

Shell hopes to drill in U.S. Arctic waters again next year. ConocoPhillips also is laying the foundation to drill in the region in 2014.

During Shell’s 2012 drilling program, the company was hit by a series of setbacks, including damage to its custom-built oil spill containment system during a drill, the drillship Noble Discoverer’s out-of-control drift near Dutch Harbor, Alaska, last July and the grounding of its Kulluk rig as it traveled to a Seattle shipyard for maintenance.

Shell and oil industry leaders have described the mishaps as maritime incidents, distinct from the drilling itself. But the episodes illustrated that even routine maritime operations surrounding Arctic drilling can be risky.

The drillship Noble Discoverer and Shell’s conical drilling rig, the Kulluk, will be repaired in Asian shipyards later this year. A massive oceangoing heavy-lift vessel began hauling the Noble Discoverer to Korea for repairs on March 9.