Climate Change, Conservation, Environmental Hazards

Study Suggests Increased Environmental Risks Associated with Arctic Drilling

Oil rig in the Arctic Ocean
A new BOEM study released Friday suggests further arctic drilling could be hazardous to the environment.
Image: Shutterstock

A report released on Friday by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) suggests that new drilling for oil off of Alaska’s northwest coast could potentially lead to detrimental effects on the environment. On the other hand, the report is also the culmination of more in-depth research and analysis that could allow the dozens of oil companies wanting to drill in the area to do so with a more accurate idea of how to drill safely.

Back in January, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the leases purchased by the Royal Dutch Shell Company and others to drill in the Chuckchi Sea. However, the court also required the companies to go back and look more closely at their estimates regarding the impact the drilling would have on the environment.

“They said that its reliance on an estimate of 1 billion barrels of recoverable oil was, to use their words, arbitrary and capricious,” said John Callahan, a spokesperson for the BOEM.  The court told the companies to do more thorough research and, in the meantime, suspended the leases.

BOEM therefore went back to the drawing board and launched a significant study considering the development of multiple oil fields producing 4.3 billion barrels and covering 77 years of oil and gas development, according to Callahan.

The question now becomes–what next? Proponents of drilling, such as Senator Lisa Murkowski, are pleased to have the new data published and believe it will lead to drilling beginning next year–though the decision could be close, with deadlines looming.  Companies owning the leases, such as Shell, will review the report and determine the appropriate safety measures they would need to take, should their leases be extended.

BOEM, for its part, will take its research through a 45-day public comment period, traveling to communities along the coast, including Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Barrow.

Environmentalist organizations remain skeptical and concerned about the potential environmental impact. When Shell drilled in the Arctic in 2012, their season ended with the Kulluk rig running aground near Kodiak Island.  And if that weren’t concerning enough, the new research suggests there is a 75% chance of one or more large spills occurring–up from the 40% chance predicted six years ago.

“It also puts the climate at risk,” said Erik Grafe, staff attorney with Earthjustice.  “Drilling for more oil in the rapidly melting Arctic Ocean adds climate insult to climate injury.”



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