Commentary: Knowledge has helped industry drill safely in Arctic for decades

A drill rig works at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope in 2012. (AP Photo/ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc., Garth Hannum)

By Nikki Martin

As environmental groups continue to try to find ways to ban fossil fuel development, they often point to pictures of snow-covered tundras to make the point that we “just don’t know enough” about the Arctic environment to be able to operate there safely. As a part of an industry that has pioneered technology to take pictures thousands of feet below the earth’s surface without drilling a single hole, it’s hard to agree with that assessment.

We know a lot more about the Arctic environment than activists claim, and this knowledge has helped the industry operate in the region safely and responsibly for many decades. As the Department of the Interior finalizes its 2017-2022 offshore leasing program, it should use this breadth of expertise to inform the drafting process – and allow Arctic oil and gas lease sales in the coming years.

The companies we represent provide industry with the understanding of the physical environment it needs to operate, including detailed, three-dimensional pictures of rock formations thousands of feet below the surface before a drill bit has even touched the ground. Those pictures allow petroleum engineers to predict where oil and gas resources are likely located, plan for potential hazards like shallow gas pockets and faults, select the equipment best suited to the conditions, and drill with the smallest footprint possible.

We have used this kind of technology all over the world – including in the Arctic, for over five decades now – so we know exactly what lies beneath those snow-covered tundras. And the potential is enormous. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the American Arctic holds 34 billion barrels of oil equivalent of oil, about 15 years of U.S. net oil imports at 2015 levels, and another 60 barrel of oil equivalent of gas.

But what we know doesn’t stop there. We have also seen that Arctic oil and gas development can take place safely and responsibly – as it has for decades now, ever since the first commercial well was drilled in the Canadian Arctic in 1920 and the first offshore Arctic oil field began production in 1986. In fact, the industry’s long history of operating in Arctic conditions has facilitated technological advancements that have made development safer and minimized industry’s footprint on the environment.

We also know a great deal about the wildlife and the animals that inhabit the Arctic. The Geological Survey has been collecting Arctic geological and botanical information ever since the late 1800s, and two federal agencies began a comprehensive environmental assessment of the offshore Arctic in 1973.

The quest to further our understanding of the Arctic continues today. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management develops and manages ongoing scientific research programs in the Arctic, while the oil and gas industry continues to fund and lead research projects in order to improve its ability to respond to a spill in the rare case one might occur.

For example, just one company alone invested $5 billion on its Arctic oil spill research program, compared to the $164 million the federal government had spent on oil spill research over an 11-year period. On top of that, several oil and gas companies have pledged $20 million to support the Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology Joint Industry Program to advance oil spill research.

Finally, we know that Arctic oil and gas development can help bolster our nation’s energy security and contribute meaningfully to meeting the growing demand for energy in the U.S. and around the world. Even though the United States has earned the coveted spot of the world’s top oil and gas producer in recent years, the Energy Department projects that production in the Lower 48 will begin falling in the 2020s and continue declining through 2040.

To avoid scrambling then and resorting to importing oil and gas from other countries, we have to start planning now. And because drilling in the Arctic will take a minimum of a decade and quite possibly longer, we have to start laying the ground for production now.

Nikki Martin is the President of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors.

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