U.S. Arctic Ocean Experts Call for Action to Improve Offshore Drilling Safety

March 2, 2012

Reforms made by the Obama administration after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill were critical to improving the safety of offshore drilling, but more remains to be done, concluded a panel of experts during a briefing held at Pew’s offices Feb. 24 in Washington, DC.

Michael R. Bromwich, former director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, described reforms that the Obama administration put in place after the spill, including drilling safety rules, well design, and cement standards. Equally important, he said, was the decision to reorganize government overview to separate revenue collection from regulation.

However, oil spill response standards and technology still need to be improved, Bromwich said.

Marilyn Heiman, director of Pew’s U.S. Arctic Program, who moderated the discussion, noted that all of the speakers have had first-hand experience dealing with an oil spill, most recently the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. All learned the hard way that after such a catastrophic event, complacency slowly but surely returns, she said. By fostering discussion and awareness, she said, “we hope to keep the Gulf spill and the need to prevent future accidents—particularly in the Arctic Ocean—in the forefront of the media, community leaders, and policymakers’ minds.”

Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, praised administration actions as well as steps taken by industry. But she pointed out that Congress, which should have been the third major player in the reform effort, has done nothing.

She reminded the audience that in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska’s once-pristine Prince William Sound, Congress overhauled tanker safety laws.

“That legislation passed unanimously,” she said. “Can you imagine that today?”

To spur further reforms, Ulmer said, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, of which she was a member, will issue annual report cards, beginning with the second anniversary of the spill. She also discussed the need for science to inform decision-making. Retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. Roger T. Rufe said Alaska’s remote Arctic region lacks the infrastructure to deal with an oil spill. Even areas with equipment and personnel on hand have been unable to pick up “more than 3 or 4 or 5 percent” of oil spilled in water, he said, and the ability to clean up oil in broken-ice conditions is “abysmal.”

Edward Itta, former mayor of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, said his two terms as mayor were consumed with concerns over development in the Arctic Ocean. “No issue is more important to the Inupiat Eskimos than the long-term health of the offshore ecosystem,” he said, stressing the significance of the ocean to the culture and spirituality of indigenous peoples.

“Our ancestors got us to where we are by teaching us about the land and the ocean,” he said. But with the threat of development, “we have a sense of stress and anxiety for our children and grandchildren.”

More than 70 government officials, academics, nonprofit leaders, and reporters attended the panel discussion on the future of offshore energy in the U.S. Arctic Ocean, hosted by the Pew Environment Group.

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