The federal agency that oversees hydrocarbon exploration in waters off America’s coasts released Friday a new study of the impacts of drilling in the Chukchi sea.
Coming about ten months after a federal appeals court rejected a prior effort by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the draft supplemental environmental impact statement concludes that there is a high likelihood of a large oil spill in the fragile Arctic region if development of exploration leases proceeds.
Environmental advocacy group leaders used the occasion to sharply criticize the Obama administration’s ongoing commitment to consider allowing Royal Dutch Shell PLC and other oil companies to hunt for fossil fuels in the far north.
“Companies are not prepared to operate in unforgiving Arctic waters,” Susan Murray, a senior vice president at Oceana, said in a statement. “There is no proven way to respond to an oil spill in icy conditions and almost no infrastructure from which to launch a response to any kind of accident.”
One significant worry for the environmental community is the impact drilling would have on the region’s wildlife. The Chukchi sea provides habitat for several imperiled species, including the polar bear, walrus, and bowhead whales.
“Whether it will be from an almost inevitable oil spill, or from the unavoidable noises from seismic surveys, vessel and platform stabilization, underwater acoustic communications, seafloor hydrocarbon processing, and re-injection well compressors; we know that oil and gas operations will disrupt the habitat for Arctic marine life which we know so little about – and upon which we may very well depend,” Michael Stocker, Ocean Conservation Research’s director, said.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, ruled in January that a prior environmental impact statement failed to consider all of the possible impacts of drilling in the region.The prior EIS assumed that only about 1 billion barrels of oil would be extracted from beneath the roiling waves in the Chukchi; the new draft EIS considers that production will total about 4.3 billion barrels.
Shell experienced numerous difficulties in a 2012 attempt to prepare for exploration activities, including the grounding of a drilling vessel.
The new EIS will be published in the Federal Register on Nov. 7. A 45-day comment period will occur before BOEM can make a final decision about whether to permit exploration activity to commence in 2015.
The $2.7 billion lease at issue was finalized in Feb. 2008.