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Arctic drilling needs federal standards

Sept. 27, 2013 at 2:27 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Sept. 27 (UPI) -- Federal standards are needed to ensure safe Arctic drilling, a new report says.

The report, "Arctic Standards: Recommendations on Oil Spill Prevention, Response, and Safety in the U.S. Arctic Ocean" from Pew Charitable Trusts, comes in advance of a draft of standards for offshore Arctic drilling due to be released by the U.S. Interior Department before the end of this year.

Interior initiated the process to update its regulations following its review of Shell's 2012 Alaska offshore oil and gas exploration program.

After spending nearly $5 billion on permits, personnel and equipment to drill in U.S. Arctic waters, Shell last year encountered problems ranging from equipment failures to heavy ice.

Shell has taken a pause from Arctic drilling this summer while its rigs are repaired in Asian shipyards, the Houston Chronicle reported.

"It is essential that appropriate standards be in place for safety and for oil spill prevention and response in this extreme, remote, and vulnerable ecosystem," Pew noted in the study, released this week.

An earlier report by the organization, released in 2010, noted sub-zero temperatures, hurricane-force winds, low visibility, 10- to 30-foot seas and prolonged winter darkness in the U.S. Arctic Ocean "would impede any cleanup attempts" in that area.

This week's report contains about 80 recommendations focusing on preventing problems. For example, Pew suggests the government limit the period for oil and gas drilling to the 100 or so days when ice melts enough for rigs and oil spill response equipment to operate in open water.

"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," Marilyn Heiman, a former Interior Department official who now serves as director of Pew's U.S. Arctic Program, was quoted as saying by the Chronicle.

"It should be very clear up front what is required so it is clear to the public and to the industry what they need to do to drill in the Arctic," Heiman added.

Pew also recommends that oil spill control equipment, such as relief rigs and well-control containment systems, be designed for and located in Alaska's Arctic, for ready deployment and for the equipment to be tested in Arctic conditions.

The Los Angeles Times reported an Interior Department spokesman said Tuesday Shell had not submitted an application to drill in 2014.

"Our future plans for offshore Alaska will depend on a number of factors," Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell Smith told the Times this week. Those factors, he said, include "the readiness of our rigs and our confidence that lessons learned from the 2012 operating season have been fully incorporated."

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