Arctic standards urged for oil drilling in forbidding region

Engineers, oil industry representatives and environmentalists on Wednesday urged federal regulators to adopt a suite of baseline standards to govern a new era of oil drilling and possibly production in Arctic waters.

The Interior Department’s Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Arctic Subcommittee also suggested regulators consider insisting companies conduct spill deployment drills in the region before drilling there and asked for a broader review of any plans for cleaning up discharged crude.

The U.S. chief offshore drilling regulator, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, may pursue Arctic mandates, said the agency’s director, James Watson.

“There is a time that is coming in the not-so-distant future that we’ll have to look at Arctic-specific standards,” Watson told the ocean energy panel, which was meeting in Washington, D.C., to make its final recommendations after two years of work on ways to boost offshore drilling safety.

Charlie Williams, a subcommittee member who was the chief scientist for Shell and now heads the industry’s Center for Offshore Safety, said the goal is to ensure that companies operating in the Arctic are working “in the same way to achieve safety.”

Right now, there are no specific mandates governing Arctic oil development.

Some critics worry that without those requirements, safeguards voluntarily adopted by Shell Oil Co. in 2012 _ including a spill-containment device like the systems required for deep-water exploration in the Gulf of Mexico _ would not be followed by other oil companies planning Arctic drilling, including ConocoPhillips, Statoil and Repsol.

Environmentalists insist that Arctic standards would help set a floor for protections in the fragile region, by possibly requiring ice-capable equipment and specifying how close rigs need to be for drilling relief wells in case of an emergency.

Marilyn Heiman, Arctic Program director with Pew Environment Group and a member of the subcommittee, said those standards are absolutely needed if Arctic drilling continues.

“The Obama administration needs to impose Arctic-specific safety, training and spill response standards and ensure the proper precautions are in place before approving any additional drilling,” Heiman said. “Clearly we’re not there yet.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar hinted at a possible requirement for containment systems to contain runaway subsea wells in shallow Arctic waters, like the equipment already mandated for deep-water drilling.

Salazar noted that the Gulf of Mexico is already served by two containment systems “if something were to go wrong,” but “we don’t have something like that yet in the Arctic, except in a very specific operation.”

He questioned if that “is something we should put on the table and pursue?”

The push for Arctic-specific drilling standards responds to concerns about the challenges of working in a remote, punishing environment, where thick ice packs can cover water most of the year and the only Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles away.

The United States currently allows exploratory oil drilling only during a brief “open water” season each year, after ice pack melts and before it starts encroaching again on the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. But oil production in the area _ which is easily a decade away, assuming oil discoveries in the area and regulators sign off _ could happen year-round during iced-over conditions.

Stephen Hickman, a panel member from the U.S. Geological Survey, said the safety bureau might need to weigh requiring Arctic drilling rigs “to be designed for adverse weather and potential poor accessibility.”

Pipelines to connect offshore oil wells with onshore facilities might need to be designed with extra redundancies to guard against spills and buried deep below the sea bed to avoid perils from passing ice bergs and erosion.

Already, companies have to bury critical emergency devices, known as blowout preventers, in big mudline cellars dug into the sea floor. But illustrating the unique design requirements of Arctic drilling, that means remote-operated vehicles have limited access to the blowout preventers once they are buried underwater, even when the controls are positioned on top, Williams noted.

The ocean energy committee on Wednesday voted to recommend a review of the capability of oil spill removal organizations to clean up crude in slushy or iced-over waters.

The panel also told the safety bureau that it should consider requiring Arctic oil spill equipment deployment drills before drilling operations. The group noted that existing regulations provide for exercises, training and inspections to validate that equipment is being maintained and can be deployed quickly.

But, the panel concluded, existing response equipment adapted for warmer, more accessible regions may be untested or uninspected in the Arctic frontier. And whole new categories of oil spill response equipment may be created for the region.

The recommendation bolsters the bureau’s approach to Shell’s one-of-a-kind containment system, which was damaged during tests in Puget Sound last September. Although the Arctic Challenger barge holding that response system was later certified by the Coast Guard, it still has not cleared bureau scrutiny.

Don Jacobsen, a former Noble Corp., executive now is overseeing Shell’s Arctic drilling operations, voted against the recommendation that BSEE consider Arctic oil spill equipment deployment drills. Committee chairman Tom Hunter, a former director of Sandia National Laboratories, abstained.