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Set Standards Before Drilling in U.S. Arctic Ocean, Says Pew

The search for natural gas and oil in ever more remote regions is drawing more prospectors to the U.S. Arctic Ocean, which includes Alaska waters, but there aren't enough safeguards in place to ensure accidents can be managed, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The independent nonprofit issued a 142-page report on Monday outlining a series of recommendations about what operators and regulators should consider before development moves into a higher gear.

As of now, little activity is underway in Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas, in part because of regulations put in place following the Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Also hindering operations is the cost: Arctic drilling requires Arctic equipment.

The remote region also has another trap for potential operators: the weather.

"The Arctic Ocean is ice-covered for eight to nine months of the year, with almost complete darkness for nearly three of those months," the report noted. "Even during the summer when the ice pack has mostly receded, the Arctic still experiences high seas, wind, freezing temperatures, dense fog, and floating ice hazards."

Researchers said all of the hazards involved with Arctic exploration require operators be prepared for "self-rescue. Inadequate infrastructure and punishing weather could seriously delay the arrival of additional vessels, equipment, people, or other help."

Infrastructure that North American developers take for granted doesn't exist in the Arctic, including major highways, airports and ports.

"The nearest U.S. Coast Guard air base is in Kodiak, AK, more than 950 air miles away. The nearest major port is in Dutch Harbor, AK, which is over 1,000 miles from the Arctic Ocean. Sailing from Dutch Harbor to Barrow, AK (the point between the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic Ocean), would be similar to transiting the entire West Coast of the United States."

Pew recommends that Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) drilling operations in the Arctic be limited to periods when the rigs and associated spill response systems are capable of working and cleaning up a spill. Spill response equipment should be located in Alaska's Arctic and "be sufficiently robust to remove oil caught in ice-infested waters and trapped under ice."

Redundant systems, like blowout preventers, double-walled pipelines, double-bottom tanks and remotely operated controls, also should be installed because equipment and logistical access is unavailable for large parts of the year because of harsh weather or ice cover, researchers said.

"To achieve these goals, the Interior Department should develop a combination of prescriptive and performance- based Arctic OCS standards to regulate the offshore oil and gas industry."

The standards should set minimum technology and operating benchmarks based on proven and generally accepted best industry technology and practices, said the report.

As technology evolves and practices are developed, Pew also recommended that Interior "routinely update minimum prescriptive standards to ensure that technical innovations are routinely integrated into regulation." 

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