Washington, DC — The emergency 60-day review of Arctic drilling plans by the U.S. Interior Department must be opened to public scrutiny to have credibility, according to an open letter sent today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group is urging federal regulators to meet with independent experts in open session rather than only with industry representatives behind closed doors and to create an advisory council for local residents to participate in decision-making. Such a consultative process on Arctic offshore drilling is now playing out in Great Britain.
On January 8th, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered a high-level two month review of plans by Royal Dutch Shell PLC to resume oil and gas exploration in the remote Beaufort and Chukchi Seas this summer, leading to commercial production in challenging Arctic waters. He ordered the review following a series of increasingly serious mishaps with critical safety systems assembled by Shell. These include the failure of its oil spill containment dome and, most recently, the loss at sea and subsequent grounding of a massive drilling rig. This review, however, will take place outside of public view.
Also shielded from scrutiny are the exact requirements imposed on Shell by Interior. The agency has not revealed what steps it has taken or what tests will be applied to assure reliability of Shell operations.
“The recent fiascos cast doubt not only on Shell’s capacity to operate safely in Arctic waters but also on Interior’s ability to competently oversee those operations,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose group is suing Interior to force release of basic documents describing safeguards against blow-outs, sea ice and loss of well integrity, among other topics. “More than a self-review will be required to restore public confidence that this is not another eco-catastrophe waiting to happen.”
In its letter, PEER quotes recent remarks by a top Interior official calling for a “timeout” on oil exploration in risky areas, as well as a desire to tap independent expertise in academic, other governments as well as non-governmental organizations. Reliance solely on industry information can lead to serious problems, such as the massive drilling rig Shell lost at sea because Alaska did not know how it was to be moved. The group urges Interior to open its regulatory regime to outside scrutiny and to reach out to villages and Alaska Native organizations in the Arctic, the boroughs, and other stakeholders on Arctic issues.
Today, the British government rejected a report from a cross-party committee of the British Parliament which urged a moratorium on offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic until stronger spill prevention, response and recovery safeguards are secured. The Cameron government did, however, agree with recommendations from British lawmakers that marine preserves are needed in Arctic waters and that local residents have a role in decision-making.
“Until we can effectively address these residual risk factors, it’s time for a ‘time-out’ in Arctic offshore drilling,” said Rick Steiner, an expert in oil spill response and a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member. “Unless these uncertainties are resolved, a real catastrophe may occur.”