Industry Chafes at Relief Rig Rule for Arctic Drilling

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Witness at U.S. House hearing include Richard Glenn of ASRC, former state senator Drue Pearce, and Michael LeVine of Oceana.

The safety of drilling in the Arctic Ocean was debated at a U.S. House subcommittee hearing this morning. Advocates of oil and gas development say the rules the government wants to impose on future offshore projects in the Arctic are needlessly burdensome.

If Shell goes ahead with plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer, it will be following custom-crafted safety terms it worked out with the federal government. The government now wants to lock some of those requirements into regulations, to apply to future Arctic projects. It was obvious at the hearing that industry especially dislikes one proposed condition: The requirement that an operator be able to drill a same-season relief well in case of a blowout.

Alaska Congressman Don Young says Arctic wells are unlikely to go out of control because they would tap shallow, low-pressure petroleum reservoirs. Young challenged Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, about whether a blowout is even possible under those conditions.

“Sir, we would agree that the risk is low,” Salerno said, but he said they are still possible.

Young chided witnesses at the hearing for emphasizing the risk.

“That’s what I call leading in hysteria,” Young said. “The chances of a blowout will not occur.”

In Salerno’s view, the penalty is high for being wrong about that.

“Should something occur and you don’t have the means to deal with it, you may be stuck with an out of control well until the next season,” he said.

The same-season relief well requirement means operators would have to send two rigs to the Arctic, so it’s expensive. It also shrinks the drilling season, because they’d have to stop regular operations with enough time left to drill an emergency well before the ice returns in the fall.

Drue Pearce, a former Alaska legislator and now a policy advisor to industry, argues the requirement actually increases risk. As Pearce sees it, the shorter season means it will take two years to drill a single well, and each year, an armada of support vessels has to sail from Dutch Harbor into the Arctic and back.

“And most of the accidents that put oil in the water are transportation-related accidents. So you have at least doubled, if not more than doubled, the risk, by forcing that transportation twice,” she testified.

Pearce says new safety technologies used in other countries would be more effective than a relief well in the unlikely event of a blowout. (Salerno says his agency has chased down reports of such technology but says he knows of nothing that can substitute for a relief well.)

To Congresswoman Lois Capps, a California Democrat whose district includes Santa Barbara, the reassurances from Pearce and others rang hollow.

“The company that operates the pipeline that recently burst in my district also assured state regulators that pipeline was ‘state of the art’ and that spills were ‘extremely unlikely,'” Capps said. “On May 19, that ‘extremely unlikely’ event actually happened.”

Now, Capps says, a hundred miles of California beaches are fouled by heavy off-shore crude, fishermen are suffering and hundreds of birds are dead.

Pearce, though, says that pipeline accident in Santa Barbara proves one of her points: that most oil spills stem from transportation, not drilling.