North Sea Spill Reveals Risks of Drilling in the More Remote, Less Regulated Arctic

One year after BP capped its blown out well in the Gulf of Mexico, another spill has dumped oil into yet another sea. Nearly 55,000 gallons of oil have leaked from a Royal Dutch Shell drilling platform off the coast of Scotland.  Once again we are faced with the reality that offshore drilling is an inherently perilous venture.

The dangers in this industry will never go away. The question is: are we prepared to deal with them?

The United Kingdom and Norway have some of the highest standards for offshore operations, risk assessment, and safety management in the world. Yet this latest Shell spill proves that, even in a strong regulatory environment, accidents happen.

That is what makes the Obama Administration’s recent decision to give Shell a tentative go-ahead to drill in the Beaufort Sea off the coast of Alaska so troubling. (You can read my response to that announcement in an Op-Ed I wrote in Thursday's New York Times.)

Drilling in the inhospitable waters of the Arctic Oceans presents far more logistical and environmental challenges than the well-charted North Sea and Gulf of Mexico. The Arctic is dominated by ice-covered waters, long periods of darkness, and extreme remoteness—the closest Coast Guard response vessel is 1,750 miles away and would take five days to get to the wells.

Yet neither the government nor the oil industry has demonstrated they can handle these risks.

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A view of the Beaufort Sea in August. Photo credit: Daniel Guip

When I served on the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, we heard testimony from numerous federal officials and oil executives, and we concluded that the government’s lax oversight had allowed the industry to grow complacent about matters of safety.

A simple comparison between America and Europe reveals how far U.S. companies had slipped. Between 2004 and 2009, deaths in the offshore oil and gas industry were more than four times higher per person hours in American waters than they were in European waters. The same companies operate in both places, but those working in the U.S. felt free to take a looser approach to safety.

Some people define a “culture of safety” as doing the right thing even when no one is watching. The industry has neglected to promote such an ethic. Major oil companies generated $289 billion in profits in the three years before the BP disaster. They spent $39 billion to explore and produce new wells. They spent a mere $20 million per year on research and development for safety, accident prevention, and oil spill response.

To help sharpen the focus on safety, the National Commission called on the government to strengthen its offshore drilling regulations and augment them with updated risk management practices. The Obama administration has taken some of these steps, but needs to do more to get the job done.

We also recommended that the industry create uniform operating protocols to ensure all companies are held to the highest standards.  The industry has yet to do this, and indeed, most companies are still relying on the same blowout preventers, boom, and dispersants we had last year that either failed or left behind serious unanswered questions.

This is the backdrop in which Shell would be plunging into the formidable Arctic waters. We must not give oil companies the privilege of tapping America’s natural riches when they have failed to demonstrate they can put safety first.