This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
During three decades of oil and gas drilling in offshore areas around Alaska, there has never been a well blow-out. Even if there was one in the future, it's difficult to envision how it could ever approach the scale of the recent Gulf of Mexico disaster.
Those were some of the points Gov. Sean Parnell made to federal officials in Anchorage Aug. 26 during a listening session on offshore drilling. Parnell asked them to lift the administration's ban on such work near Alaska.
Drilling in Alaska's federally leased offshore areas, almost all of which are in shallow water, was stopped earlier this summer when the Obama administration placed a moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf. Parnell, in a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement Director Michael Bromwich, explained why this was inappropriate.
Start with the water. Most leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas cover ocean areas with depths of 160 feet or less. The Gulf leases often allow drilling in 5,000-foot depths. "Human dive teams are able to operate directly on the seafloor in many places offshore Alaska," Parnell noted. In the Gulf, remotely operated vehicles are necessary and, as we've seen, aren't always up to the job.
Then look at the differences in the sea floor. The Gulf's deep sediments "lead to strongly over-pressurized pore fluids," Parnell noted. "Deep drilling in such environments is especially difficult because the high drilling mud densities required to control overpressures can fracture the formation, causing catastrophic losses of drilling fluids that can trigger a blowout." Alaska's offshore areas have less sedimentation and less dangerous overpressures, Parnell said.
Parnell acknowledged there is legitimate concern about the oil industry's blowout prevention equipment. But he also noted the state of Alaska has an excellent oversight system to insure that such equipment works as advertised. He offered to share that system with the federal agency. For example, Parnell said, drilling rigs must be inspected before they begin work. "Blowout preventers are tested every 14 days (every seven days for exploratory wells) to ensure proper performance," he said. "(Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) inspectors personally witness about 25 percent of these tests."
Alaska and the nation need offshore oil and gas, the governor said. Even if alternatives begin to supply a big slice of our nation's energy, we are far better served by supplying our own oil and gas rather than importing it from places where the governments apply far less environmental oversight. Drilling in Alaska's offshore areas under a rigorous regulatory system similar to the state's is not just good policy for Alaska. It's good policy for the country, and it's good policy for the Earth.