U.S. Issues Proposed Rules for Safety of Arctic Drilling Offshore Alaska

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February 23, 2015

Shell rigs leave Seattle in June 2012 for the company’s summer drilling campaign in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Photo: Vigor

The U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) have released proposed regulations that they say will ensure the safety of future exploratory drilling activities in the U.S. Arctic by holding operators accountable over the full spectrum of operations from mobilization to drilling and emergency response.

The proposed Arctic-specific regulations released Friday focus solely on offshore exploration drilling operations within the Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea Planning Areas.

The regulations seek to codify and further develop current Arctic-specific operational standards, ensuring that operators take the necessary steps to plan through all phases of offshore exploration in the Arctic – including mobilization, drilling, maritime transport and emergency response, and conduct safe drilling operations while in theater – through a combination of performance-based and prescriptive standards.

“The proposed rule codifies existing Arctic-specific standards and establishes the rules of the road for all companies interested in safe and responsible Arctic exploration,” said Assistant Secretary for Land Minerals Management Janice Schneider. “In turn, these rules would facilitate exploration planning efforts and provide regulatory certainty, while ensuring that the U.S. maintains its leadership position in overseeing safe exploration operations that protect this unique and sensitive environment.”

The proposed regulations will ensure that all Arctic offshore operators and their contractors are appropriately prepared for Arctic conditions and that operators have developed an integrated operations plan that details all phases of the exploration program for purposes of advance planning and risk assessment. The proposed rules also would require operators to submit region-specific oil spill response plans, have prompt access to source control and containment equipment, and have available a separate relief rig to timely drill a relief well in the event of a loss of well control.

The Alaska Outer Continental Shelf was included in the Department of Interior’s Draft Proposed Program (DPP) for the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2017-2022 released in January, which proposed three potential lease sales offshore Alaska, including making available for leasing areas that contain 90% of undiscovered technically recoverable oil and gas resources in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

“As we make the vast majority of the Arctic oceans offshore Alaska available for oil and gas leasing, we have an obligation to provide the American people with confidence that these shared resources can be developed responsibly,” said Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Abigail Ross Hopper.

The proposed regulations incorporate some of the lessons learned from Shell’s 2012 failed operations in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, which were identified through a high-level review of the company’s operations, including preparations for the 2012 drilling season and its maritime and emergency response operations. The findings of the assessment were released in March 2013 and included recommendations to guide future exploratory activities.

“This proposed rule is designed to ensure safe energy exploration in unforgiving Arctic conditions,” said Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director Brian Salerno. “It builds upon our existing Arctic-specific standards and experience with previous operations offshore Alaska, encourages further development of technology, and includes rigorous safeguards to protect the fragile environment.”

“The Arctic has substantial oil and gas potential, and the U.S. has a longstanding interest in the orderly development of these resources, which includes establishing high standards for the protection of this critical ecosystem, the surrounding communities, and the subsistence needs and cultural traditions of Alaska Natives,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “These proposed regulations issued today extend the Administration’s thoughtful approach to balanced oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, and are designed to ensure that offshore exploratory activities will continue to be subject to the highest safety standards.”

The public may submit comments on the proposed Arctic regulations during the 60-day comment period that begins when the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register. The proposed regulations can be found HERE.

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