Offshore drilling in the Arctic getting closer

Interest in offshore oil in the Arctic is growing, as are plans to make it happen. In an editorial last Sunday, The New York Times said, “Oil drilling off the North Slope of Alaska now seems virtually a sure thing.”

As the editorial points out, many environmentalists have argued against any offshore drilling in the Arctic, but the usually liberal Times sides with the drillers this time. “We believe this particular effort [Shell Oil’s plan to drill six wells in the Chukchi Sea] is worth the effort, but only if done right.”

Yes, of course, it must be done right, which means employing a combination of best technology, experience and rigid oversight. It means thorough testing of blowout preventers and spill response equipment.

It also means that the Coast Guard must be prepared to step up its Arctic operations considerably for this first foray and for those to follow. This will require more ice-strengthened vessels and better shoreside infrastructure. Meanwhile, industry is busy developing its equipment. Edison Chouest Offshore is close to completing a new ice-class OSV, the 301′ Nanuq, which will work on Shell’s Chukchi project. The new boat will join other ice-class vessels already in ECO’s fleet.

Earlier this month, the Interior Department tentatively approved Shell’s plans for spill response. Ironically, the green light may have been lit because of, and not in spite of, the Deepwater Horizon. “Today’s announcement,” stated the Interior Department on Feb. 17, “is informed by the latest science, and continues to be guided by important new safety standards as well as lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

If all goes according to plans, the Nanuq and other support vessels will finally get to work this summer in the frigid and forbidding waters of the Arctic. May they do well.

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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