Inspectors take different approach to curb spills

Part 1 of Arctic series: Shell navigates obstacles in Arctic drilling
Related story: Government inspectors take a round-the-clock approach to Arctic drilling

WASHINGTON – With high-stakes exploratory oil drilling off the north Alaska coast for the first time in more than a decade, federal offshore energy regulators this summer adopted a new approach to keeping a close watch on the work.

Instead of flying inspectors to drilling rigs for brief, hours-long visits, the government stationed them on the vessels around the clock.

The approach – a dramatic departure from the practice in the Gulf of Mexico – meant that the government had eyes on operations all the time this summer, as Shell Oil Co., drilled the first 1,500 feet of two exploratory wells in Arctic waters north of Alaska.

In what could be a model for future oil exploration in U.S. Arctic waters, inspectors with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement slept on Shell’s drilling units, watched critical operations and sat in on company meetings.

The 24/7 presence gave the government “an extended awareness of what’s actually happening,” said Mark Fesmire, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s Alaska region. Regulators weren’t limited to reports filed by the company itself.

“Our guys being there are watching the decisions being made, they’re watching the actions being taken,” Fesmire said. “It’s a real-time, on-the-spot ability to know what’s happening and what’s going on.”

The on-scene presence also meant that the feds could instantly step in if they saw problems.

While the inspectors didn’t make decisions for Shell, they could suspend operations if the company deviated from approved plans for drilling, managing ice and minimizing disruption to whales and other marine life.

“If at any time Shell were to deviate from the plan, our inspector could shut them down,” Fesmire said.

Shell just stopped drilling two exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, as temperatures dipped and the Arctic waters started freezing up again. Company officials expect to return to the region as soon as allowed next year.

“We value our environment of transparency and welcomed the presence of inspectors,” said Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh.

Environmentalists who warn that an oil spill in the region could irrevocably damage the pristine and fragile Arctic ecosystem generally found some comfort in the inspectors’ full-time presence at Shell’s drilling rigs.

But they said that still didn’t translate into transparency about how regulators were overseeing the activity or how critical decisions were being made.

“The public and conservation community has not been given access to data, information or standards, so there is not any public accountability for the way decisions are being made,” said Mike LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for Oceana. “Certainly inspectors are a necessary component of any accountable decision-making process, but so is public disclosure of information and a rigorous decision-making structure.”

The uncertainty was amplified in September, just one day after Shell began drilling its Burger A well in the Chukchi Sea, when the company halted operations and hurriedly fled a 30-by-12-mile ice floe heading for the site.

“We are supportive of inspectors, and having inspectors on site 24/7 is a good thing,” LeVine said from his office in Juneau. “But it has proven frustrating and difficult as an organization and as an Alaskan to not be provided the information we would need to understand how decisions are being made.”

During the last round of Arctic exploration in the 1980s and 1990s, when Shell and others drilled about three dozen wells on the outer continental shelf of Alaska, government inspectors camped out on the rigs.

But the full-time approach this time caused some logistical and ethical headaches for the federal government. While the safety bureau uses its own contracted helicopters to fly to offshore drilling sites in the Gulf of Mexico, it doesn’t have the same resources in Alaska.

As a result, BSEE inspectors had to fly alongside Shell employees, contractors and federally required protected species observers to the rigs.

Once there, the challenge was keeping enough distance to remain impartial while still being a part of daily life on the rig.

The National Research Council noted in June that federal inspectors evaluating the safety of offshore drilling operations can glean valuable information by spending more time on the facilities, eating meals with workers and sharing their sleeping quarters.

The government paid for the flights its Arctic inspectors took to and from Shell’s facilities this year, room and board on the drilling rig and everything else surrounding the workers.