Drilling offshore Alaska


With all the hoopla surrounding President Obama’s proposal to open areas off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts for offshore oil and gas exploration, less attention was paid to his green light for the ongoing development of offshore sites in Alaska’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas, which are leased by Shell Oil.

The Department of the Interior has put a hold on any further leasing in offshore Alaska pending more studies and reviews, but the two existing projects are moving ahead. In fact, the day after the Obama announcements, Shell received a clean-air permit from the EPA for the Chukchi Sea work. The company still needs a similar permit for the Beaufort lease and both areas face lawsuits that could delay or derail the deployment.

Still, Shell has plans to position a drillship and a small fleet of support boats into Alaska’s Arctic waters this summer if the doors stay open. The company would use Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands as a staging port. Several Shell vessels spent the summer in “Dutch” in 2007 while awaiting permission to proceed north.

Shell had also hoped to drill some exploratory wells in the North Aleutian Basin, which is southwest of Bristol Bay and its famous sockeye salmon fishery. Right now, however, the Obama administration is saying no to that idea.

While giving something to the industry and to environmental groups, Obama has “threaded the needle,” as one observer put it. He even got a thumbs-up from Alaska’s senators, one a Republican and one a Democrat.

I, too, believe that the Obama administration is getting this one right. Offshore oil production on the doorstep of Bristol Bay is just too risky. It’s still risky farther north in the Arctic, but there’s not as much at stake when it comes to fisheries. Meanwhile, there’s something like 12 billion barrels of oil and 54 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that could be recovered from the Chukchi Sea.

We can’t drill our way into energy independence, but we still need domestic oil while we continue to develop more sustainable energy sources and technology.

We also need to develop better technology and infrastructure for Arctic operations, whether it’s for oil and gas work, commercial shipping or even sightseeing. Ramping up responsible commercial work in the Chukchi and Beaufort will help spur this development.

About the author

Bruce Buls

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).

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