Some of us in Alaska have been as attuned to Shell’s offshore drilling plans as we are to the summer Olympics. For years, we have watched Shell jump over hurdle after hurdle, much like a gold-medal Olympian, only to be delayed by baseless litigation by opposition groups and regulatory strangulation by the federal government. Now, with Shell in the final stages of approval by the feds, a final — hopefully surmountable — hurdle remains.
Currently, Shell is awaiting approval by the U.S. Coast Guard for its Arctic containment system — a barge named the Arctic Challenger tasked with assisting in the cleanup of an oil spill. Without this approval, the U.S. Department of the Interior will not issue the final permits to drill, and, consequently, Shell cannot begin moving its vessels into the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Delays and restrictions on the drilling season have already forced Shell to reduce the number of wells it can drill down to two. Further delays may seriously jeopardize Shell’s ability to drill even one well.
What’s truly mind-boggling here is that the Arctic Challenger is not a required part of Shell’s safety equipment. The company took it upon itself to construct the barge as part of a larger oil spill response plan, a plan that has already been approved by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Redundant protections are already in place to ensure that, in the unlikely event a blowout occurs, blowout preventers and capping stacks can prevent an oil spill. The Arctic Challenger would only be necessary if multiple layers of safety protections fail. And this couldn’t happen until much later in the drilling season when drill bits have reached hydrocarbon depths.
As the Coast Guard deliberates on this, Alaska’s economic future hangs precariously in the balance. OCS development will bring significant jobs and revenue to Alaska — a state that depends on oil and gas revenues for over 90 percent of its operating and capital expenditures. If new development does not come online — either onshore or offshore — hopefully both — Alaska’s fiscal health is in jeopardy. And with it, the energy security of the nation.
Speaking of jeopardy, offshore development in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas is critical to ensuring that TAPS remains open. Alaskan jobs, tax revenue and economic health stem from the vitality of this pipeline. The pipeline’s longevity must remain a top priority for all Alaskans. New oil production is absolutely essential to TAPS and to our State.
Alaskans stand ready to help the Coast Guard make a commonsense, timely decision. We hope the Coast Guard realizes that additional delays in approving this voluntary safety precaution will have a serious impact on our communities. If additional information is needed, Shell and the State of Alaska are ready to provide it immediately. But, federal dithering that results in further delays is a failure of policy and leadership. The Coast Guard should make a timely and positive decision to move toward energy security and economic recovery. With the clock ticking, I strongly urge the federal government to swiftly approve the Arctic Challenger and allow Shell to proceed now.
• Giessel, a life-long Alaska resident, is a Republican who represents Anchorage District P in the state Senate.