Washington, DC — The federal agency overseeing offshore oil and gas operations slated for this spring in Arctic waters lacks basic assurances that disastrous spills and other accidents will be prevented or effectively contained, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At issue are the safeguards required to protect against such known hazards as sea ice, subsurface ice scour and blowouts, as well as specifications for well design and well integrity control.
A relatively new agency called the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), within the Interior Department, has jurisdiction over offshore drilling operations in federal waters, including the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf. The agency, however, has not been able to respond to series of requests posed by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act asking for records detailing how BSEE will approach issues ranging from sea ice to spill containment.
“We have yet to see any evidence supporting the claim that Interior has upgraded the lax enforcement enabling the BP Gulf spill. In fact, what few records we have been able to pry loose suggest just the opposite,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization today filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “This material on operational safety should be on the world-wide web, not locked away in a proprietary safe.”
What little information BSSE has disclosed raises more doubts about its independence from industry. In September, following an earlier PEER lawsuit, the agency was forced to concede that it had done only partial and cursory testing with no independent analysis of the results for the capping system to prevent a repeat of the large, lengthy Gulf of Mexico blowout in the sensitive Arctic waters.
Later that month, initial tests of the containment dome that Royal Dutch Shell PLC proposed to deploy in the Chukchi Sea failed. The containment failure was, in the words of Mark Fesmire, head of BSEE’s Alaska office, in an email released to news media:
“As bad as I thought…basically the top half is crushed like a beer can.”
BSEE has yet to reveal how it will address lack of a reliable containment dome, among other problems.
"We learned that Shell and BSEE clearly do not yet have their act together on Arctic offshore drilling,” commented Rick Steiner, an expert in oil spill response and a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member. “We need far more assurances on safety before they can responsibly conduct any further drilling, and the information sought in this suit is a start.”
Shell hopes to begin drilling this spring in the remote Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Those plans are also under direct legal challenge by environmental groups and Native governments. The documents sought by the new PEER suit will buttress their legal challenges that known major hazards have not been addressed.