Standards proposed for risky Arctic oil drilling


Washington -- Hunting for offshore oil in remote and unforgiving Arctic waters requires vessels capable of withstanding crushing blows from icebergs, a nearby supply of emergency equipment and other specialized resources, according to a new report from Pew Charitable Trusts. In the analysis released Monday, Pew details the Alaska-size challenges confronting oil companies that do business in the region and calls on federal regulators to impose baseline standards that would govern offshore oil and gas activity at the top of the world. Interior Department officials are drafting proposed minimum standards for oil and gas activity in U.S. Arctic waters, partly with an eye to codifying some of the voluntary steps that Shell took during its 2012 drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska. During a visit to the state earlier this month, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said regulators would release the standards by the end of the year, giving companies with oil and gas leases in federal Arctic waters a chance to decide whether they want to pursue drilling next year. Shell Oil, which took a pause this summer while its Arctic drilling rigs are repaired in Asian shipyards, has said it aims to return to the region in 2014. The Interior Department's work is a recognition that the Arctic presents unique challenges, including thick sea ice much of the year, dense fog in summer and remote terrain more than 1,000 miles from the nearest major port. But most offshore oil and gas equipment - from drilling rigs to skimmers for collecting floating oil - has been designed for temperate conditions. And federal regulations generally make no distinction between oil development in the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico. "There should be consistent standards in regulation that every company operating in the Arctic needs to meet. It shouldn't be discretionary, and it shouldn't be what is recommended by the industry," said Marilyn Heiman, a former Interior Department official who now serves as director of Pew's U.S. Arctic Program. One major recommendation: Energy companies should have immediate access to emergency equipment for capping and containing blown-out wells and allowing captured oil to flow to surface processing vessels. Pew also wants the oil spill equipment tested in Arctic conditions.



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