Offshore Drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas
The remote and pristine Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s Arctic coast is comprised of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. These waters are known by western scientists as the least understood area in the world. The Chukchi is the Arctic’s westernmost sea and supports approximately one-tenth of the world’s remaining polar bear population. It also is part of the spring and fall migration routes for endangered bowhead and beluga whales, a feeding area for gray and finback whales and Pacific walrus, and an important habitat for migratory birds. The Inupiat people of the region depend on the marine life of the Arctic – for the survival of their way of life and ancient culture.
Under the Bush administration, over 70 million acres in Arctic waters were opened to unprecedented levels of environmentally risky oil and gas development as part of the 2007-2012 Five-Year offshore drilling program. Although five lease sales were scheduled under that plan, only one occurred – Chukchi Lease Sale 193 – before the plan was declared illegal by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. In March 2010, the Obama administration canceled the remaining lease sales scheduled under the plan – citing a lack of information to support moving forward – yet at the same time kept the nearly 3 million-acre Chukchi Lease Sale 193 intact. Today, the Obama Administration is reconsidering Chukchi Lease Sale 193 and a public comment period is open until July 11, 2011. Shell Oil is pushing to drill up to 10 wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in 2012-2013, with Statoil and ConocoPhilips also pursuing dangerous exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea 193 leasing area. All the while, the Obama administration is considering whether to offer oil companies new leases in the next 5-Years.
Shell Oil Leads Aggressive Drilling Pursuit of the Arctic Ocean
Royal Dutch Shell has said it plans to drill up to 10 wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas over 2012 and 2013 if it gets the required permits. Their drilling operations would occur simultaneously, with one drilling rig in the Chukchi and one in the Beaufort. Despite Shell’s claims of “scaling back” their development plans in the Arctic Ocean, these are the most agressive plans that the company has unveiled.
In 2008, the federal government held the first Chukchi Sea lease sale in many years, generating unprecedented record high bids of over $2.6 Billion. Royal Dutch Shell was the highest bidder, offering $2.1 Billion for roughly 80 percent of the sold leases.
The Chukchi Sea 193 Lease Area spans over 29 million acres from north of Point Barrow to northwest of Cape Lisbourne. The sale area extends from about 25 to 50 miles from shore out to 200 miles offshore. As a result of the lease sale, roughly 2.7 million acres of the Chukchi Sea were leased by oil companies. Many of Shell’s leases are near the Hannah Shoal, a known feeding area for walrus and important habitat for other marine animals, fish, and wildlife.
Prior to the 2008 lease sale, two sales had been held in the Chukchi Sea Planning Area. Sale 109 was held in 1988 with 351 leases issued, and Sale 126 in 1991 with 28 leases issued. Five exploration wells have been drilled. All of the leases were either relinquished or have expired.
See a map of Shell’s proposed offshore oil and gas exploration and development here.
Shell’s Chukchi Sea Drilling Plans
If permitted, Shell plans to develop four fields over the leased area, drilling up to six exploratory wells between 2012-2013. Oil and associated gas will be produced from fields one, two and four. Natural gas and condensate will be produced from field 3.
The development plan also covers the construction of four offshore production platforms, offshore pipelines, onshore pipelines across the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska to link to the Trans-Alaska system (TAPS) and a future gas pipeline from the North Slope. An onshore facility has also been planned to be developed to assist offshore exploration and drilling activities.
Shell’s Beaufort Sea Exploratory Drilling Plans
After the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar halted Shell Oil’s summer 2010 plans to drill oil wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. With key investigations into the BP disaster still ongoing, Shell Oil re-submitted plans to drill in the Beaufort Sea in 2011 – directly in the pathway of the bowhead whale fall migration. In early February, Shell announced plans to delay 2011 drilling until 2012. Shell claims this delay is due to the outstanding issues with their air emissions permit, failing to acknowledge the numerous other authorizations it had yet to obtain and the failures at every level of its plans. Now Shell is moving ahead with new hasty plans to develop 10 wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas - four of them in the Beaufort Sea – between 2012 and 2013.
Obama to Consider Leasing New Areas in the Arctic Ocean
On December 1, 2010 Secretary Salazar announced that the Western Gulf of Mexico, Central Gulf of Mexico, Cook Inlet, and the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas will be considered for potential leasing as part of the federal 2012-2017 Outer Continental Shelf Offshore Leasing Program. Over 70 million acres of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are being considered for leasing and development. Once an area is leased, oil companies can apply for exploratory drilling applications within the leased area. The fatal Deepwater Horizon blowout was an exploratory drilling operation.
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Know the Risks
- There is no proven technology to clean up an oil spill in Arctic conditions with cold temperatures, low visibility, broken sea ice, and high winds.
- Industrial noise, traffic, toxic discharges, and seismic activities could impact bowheads, walrus, fish and other subsistence resources.
- Little baseline science exists for measuring the effects of disturbance, noise, air pollution, and oil spills from oil and gas activities on the Arctic ecosystem and animals central to our way of life.