Existing Regulations Governing Arctic Drilling: A Brief Refresher

April 14, 2016 in Blog

With the Department of the Interior set to release new offshore drilling regulations later today, the Arctic Energy Center thought now would be a good time to review the extensive and rigorous regulations governing Arctic drilling that already exist – regulations that have already been tightened in recent years.

Not too long ago, federal regulators “implemented the most aggressive and comprehensive offshore oil and gas regulatory reforms in the nation’s history resulting in significant enhancements to safety and environmental protection.” These regulatory reforms include heightened standards for well-design, casing, and cementing, increased inspection, and new requirements for equipment testing.

These new reforms added to the existing mitigation and monitoring measures required to conduct oil and gas activities in the offshore Arctic that are reviewed and overseen by an extensive regulatory apparatus made up of at least 12 federal agencies, 19 state agencies, and four local Alaskan agencies (pg. 4-4) governing every step of the Arctic energy development process. Regulatory oversight of oil and gas activities in the Arctic includes required round-the-clock supervision by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE): “BSEE also would maintain a 24/7 inspector presence on board each rig in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas if drilling takes place.”

Even though the best guard against oil spills is prevention – which is why oil and gas companies operating in the Arctic have a rigorous and robust oil spill prevention program in place that must be approved by federal regulators before they commence drilling – operators are also prepared to respond in the event of an oil spill.

BSEE, for example, requires that each project proposal include an Oil Spill Response Plan, which the agency reviews “to ensure that the overall proposed strategy includes the necessary resources to deal with the anticipated worst case discharge in a given offshore region, including access to capping and containment equipment necessary to control a subsea blowout.” To drive the point home, BSEE Director Brian Salerno has said, “We are leaving no stone unturned to ensure operators have addressed all relevant risks.”

The industry is prepared to respond to Arctic oil spills because of significant advances in the research on oil spills in Arctic environments made over the past 45 years, grounded in key field experiments that were backed up by laboratory and basin studies in the U.S., Canada, Norway, and the Baltic countries. Research initiatives include the Arctic Response Technology Joint Industry Program (ART JIP), the SINTEF Oil in Ice Joint Industry Project (JIP), as well as research sponsored by BSEE. Ongoing research on the behavior – and mitigation – of oil in Arctic conditions will continue to inform oil spill response plans and enhance the industry’s high level of operational preparedness.

In Short

Safety is of the utmost importance to the oil and gas industry, which is why – for decades now – it has been funding research on the Arctic environment, why it has been working with indigenous communities to minimize potential impacts of development, and why it has been developing drilling plans that are comprehensive and thorough and hundreds of pages long. Given the regulations that already exist and the exhaustive measures that already constitute drilling plans, additional regulations that are redundant or unnecessary will offer little, if any, benefit while adding to the mounting costs of oil and gas development imposed by existing regulations – to the detriment of local Alaskans and Americans across the country.