Alaska is becoming a national leader in a new area, relaxing its regulation of offshore oil drilling spill response and prevention at a time when others are seeking more protections.
That change comes following BP’s huge Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which elsewhere prompted efforts to strengthen requirements offshore drilling companies do a better job of both preventing spills and responding to them when they do happen.
Alaska is alone in weakening its offshore drilling regulations, according to state and environmental groups who monitor such regulations.
The change is due to the elimination of the Alaska’s Coastal Management program, under which it could require drilling and other activities in the outer continental shelf meet tougher standards than the federal minimums. Alaska has no jurisdiction in federal waters outside the state’s 3-mile limit.
“We are going to see a weakening of standards in the OCS with the loss of the Coastal Management program,” said Marilyn Heiman, director of the U.S. Arctic Program for The Pew Environmental Group and a former Alaska legislative staffer.
The Coastal Management law gave Alaska the power to see that its concerns were listened to, said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, formerly an attorney representing Coastal Management in the Alaska Department of Law.
“We use this program against the federal government,” Kerttula said.
Under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, states with approved coastal management programs share some authority with the federal government over the outer continental shelf, or OCS, outside state waters.
That was power won by coastal members of Congress years ago to give more power to the states.
Almost every state has taken advantage of that program, but Alaska this year failed to make what had once been a routine renewal of their program by the end of the fiscal year ended June 30.
Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig warned legislators in the final days of battles over Coastal Management renewal the program enabled the state to require tougher OCS protection standards than the federal government required.
The Coastal Management program gives his department the power to enforce state standards in federal waters when it comes to leasing plans, drilling plans and similar activities.
DEC’s standards, he said are “in many cases more rigorous than the federal standards.”
While federal regulations might require an oil company have the ability to clean up a certain size spill within 30 days, state standards could require 15 days, said Larry Dietrick, director of DEC’s Spill Prevention and Response Division.
Spill response plans in Alaska take into consideration the remoteness of the drilling locations, and require trained staff and equipment be pre-positioned where it is readily available.
“They have to show that they have the equipment in region to contain the spill volume and begin cleaning it up, and that by the 15th day they’d be able to collect that oil and have storage available to store the recovered oil,” said Betty Schorr, who reviews spill response plans for DEC.
Alaska might require additional blowout preventers as well due to the remoteness of Arctic drill sites, she said.
In the Gulf of Mexico, with tremendous industry assets available nearby, that level of preparedness might not be needed.
The existing Alaska plans, under which Shell Oil is seeking permits for offshore exploration in the Arctic Ocean, have met that tougher standard, Dietrick said.
“The existing (OCS) plans have gone through that process, but anything that comes through the door after July 1 will no longer have to be reviewed by us,” Dietrick said.
Dietrick said it is not even clear Alaska could hold Shell to standards that it has already agreed to, but the company has told the state it would continue to meet those requirements.
Shell Thursday received federal approval for its drilling plan in the Beaufort Sea, and hopes to have cleared legal and permitting hurdles to begin drilling in the Chukchi Sea in the summer of 2012.
“Our projects are defined by the remoteness of our leases,” said Curtis Smith, spokesman for Shell Exploration Alaska.
The company will still go above and beyond the minimum requirements to ensure a safe project even if Alaska doesn’t require it, he said.
“In the future, if those planning standards change, we will continue to add in safety margins,” he said.
That means they’ll have trained spill responders, purpose-built spill response vessels, and necessary equipment on-site and available, he said.
It is not clear what type of requirements new Alaska oil explorers may face, including some foreign oil companies that have recently purchased leases in Alaska.
Under federal law, when states have existing approved Coastal Management programs, as did Alaska until June 30, the policies in those plans have the force of law in the OCS and federal permitting agencies must include them in their permit requirements.
Dietrick said they will continue to request stronger spill prevention and response plans, and federal agencies might agree to that.
Hartig told the Legislature that even without the legal requirements of the Coastal Management program behind it, Alaska will review and offer advice on drilling plans, but the federal agencies will no longer be required to make the plans comply with state laws.
“We would still have a voice,” Hartig said.
Heiman said that’s not the same thing.
“You can comment, but they don’t have to listen,” she said.
Heiman said she was surprised to see Alaska weakening its drilling standards following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf,
“We are going to learn over the next year how many important things were in that Coastal Management program that were eliminated,” she said.
Heiman is based in Washington, D.C. now. In Alaska she served on the House of Representatives staff in charge of the Exxon Valdez spill response.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.