Salazar: Arctic oil drilling must wait
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is making it clear that he's in no hurry to open the door to new exploratory oil and gas drilling in the offshore Arctic -- not, he said, until more is known about the potential pitfalls.
Winding up a two-day trip to Alaska's North Slope that included a town hall in Barrow, a stop at the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and a flight over the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, Salazar said reports on what caused the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico will have to be in before Shell Alaska can be allowed to commence drilling new wells off Alaska's northern shores.
That may or may not happen in time for the oil company to begin operations in time for next summer's drilling season, he added.
"If you look at the Chukchi, nothing, or very little, is known about the reservoir pressures that will be encountered. We know that it would be very difficult to mount the kind of oil spill response that has been mounted in the Gulf of Mexico. And so because those questions are very much part of what we have been dealing with, it also seemed necessary for us to say, until we have answers to some of those central questions, we're not going to allow the drilling of the exploration wells," Salazar told reporters in Anchorage at the conclusion of his trip.
A new poll of regular voters, meanwhile, shows deepening concern for the potential hazards of offshore oil operations, especially in the Arctic, a fragile environment whose ecological balance is little understood, and where an oil spill in a remote, icy sea could be nightmarishly daunting to clean up.
Support for offshore drilling in the Arctic has slipped substantially since last September, according to surveys conducted by David Binder Research, dropping to 46% this year from 58% who in 2009 either strongly supported or somewhat supported new offshore operations.
A total of 70% expressed some level of concern about the risks of offshore operations, up from 52% in 2009. Three-fourths of those polled said it was very important that emergency response capabilities that can handle a blowout be in place before drilling, even if it delays operations or increases costs. Download DBR National Arctic Survey
"People realize that we use fossil fuels and we're not going to turn off the spigot right away. This poll shows that they want to clearly move to renewables," said Christopher Krenz, Arctic program manager for Oceana, which commissioned the poll.
"They understand there's deep risk in offshore oil activities, especially in the Arctic, and if the nation decides to move forward with oil and gas activities, we must be prepared. We must have the science in place to make informed decisions, and there has to be response capability in place," he added.
At an earlier hearing on Aug. 26 in Anchorage, Shell officials said the shallower waters and lower temperatures in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas would make an oil spill easier to clean up, as opposed to the deep, warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Shell also said that unlike Deepwater Horizon, the rig whose failure in late April caused 4.1 million barrels of oil to spill into the Gulf, its Arctic drilling plan calls for having substantial oil response vessels and equipment on-scene.
"Our system is robust and more than adequate to handle any worst-case scenario we see, and we have considerable additional resources to draw upon," Peter Velez, emergency response manager for Shell, told a panel headed by Michael R. Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which is going to make recommendations on offshore drilling policy later this month.
Salazar, meanwhile, was also asked about this week's drill rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that did not result in the release of any new oil into the Gulf but raised new alarm bells about the potential pitfalls of waterborne operations.
"Industrial accidents happen," he said. "There's an investigation that is underway ... and we'll find out exactly what happened, but at this point it doesn't seem like there was any oil that was released, so oil pollution is not an issue. It's not another Deepwater Horizon."
-- Kim Murphy in Fairbanks, Alaska
Photo: A polar bear traverses the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where oil companies have unsuccessfully sought for years to open for oil production. Credit: Subhankar Banerjee / Associated Press