A U.S. military helicopter assists the stranded Kulluk mobile offshore drilling unit in January 2013.
January 2013 photo of Kulluk mobile offshore drilling unit that grounded off Kodiak Island, Alaska, in 2012. A U.S. military helicopter assists the stranded vessel, owned by Shell Offshore, Inc. Credit: U.S. Air Force/SSgt. Aaron M. Johnson

The U.S. government issued on Thursday strict final regulations to govern future exploratory oil and natural gas drilling activities off the shore of Alaska on the U.S. Arctic Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

The new Department of the Interior (DOI) regulations require that companies ensure proper internal controls and planning for oil spill prevention and containment and responses for drilling operations from floating vessels within the U.S. Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.  Planning areas within those seas contain an estimated 24 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil and 2.94 trillion cubic meters (104 trillion cubic feet) of technically recoverable natural gas, according to the department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The regulations call for operators to use equipment and processes that can perform effectively and safely in remote areas under extreme weather and sea conditions. They also require integrated operation plans that address all phases of an OCS exploration program. The regulations stem from issues identified in previous Department of the Interior reports about Shell’s 2012 exploration activities in the Arctic, according to DOI. In 2012, a mobile offshore drilling unit owned by Shell Offshore, Inc., grounded off Kodiak Island, Alaska. Shell ceased exploration activities offshore Alaska in 2015 following disappointing results.

Providing Regulatory Certainty

“This rule seeks to set the highest safety and environmental standards for companies interested in Arctic exploration.”

“This rule seeks to set the highest safety and environmental standards for companies interested in Arctic exploration,” Janice Schneider, DOI assistant secretary, said at a 7 July briefing. “These efforts will collectively yield enhanced regulatory certainty, stronger planning efforts, and the safety reinforcement mechanisms necessary to protect a uniquely fragile area.”

Nicolette Nye, vice president for communications and industry affairs for the National Ocean Industries Association, told Eos that the regulations “provide regulatory certainty that is crucial to oil and gas companies interested in exploring the Alaskan Arctic.” However, she said the rules “do not necessarily pave the way for more drilling.  Prescriptive and costly requirements in the regulations could dissuade future exploration in what is already a costly and challenging operational environment.”

DOI currently is finalizing its OCS oil and gas leasing program for 2017–2022, which evaluates three lease sales off Alaska. Nye said that the program “must not exclude the Arctic from consideration and must schedule lease sales in the Alaskan Arctic.”

However, Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for Oceana, an environmental group, told Eos, “The government should remove the Beaufort and Chukchi sea planning areas from the 2017–2022 Five-Year Program and focus on fundamental reform of the rules governing planning, leasing, and exploration.” LeVine said that the new regulations “require commonsense precautions” and that “finalizing [them] does not commit the federal government to authorizing new activities.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2016), Tougher guidelines issued for Alaska offshore drilling, Eos, 97, https://doi.org/10.1029/2016EO055641. Published on 11 July 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.