What’s Next for the U.S. Arctic Ocean?

Shell Oil announced last week that it would discontinue its exploration efforts in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. But without strong standards for oil and gas exploration, development and production activities—as well as long-term protections for particularly sensitive areas—the ecosystem is still at risk.

The U.S. Arctic experiences some of the world’s most challenging weather conditions and is also ecologically vulnerable. Legally, Shell and other energy companies can use their existing leases to explore in the Beaufort Sea through 2017 and in the Chukchi Sea through 2020—expiration dates for which they have requested extensions. Hilcorp Energy is still actively drilling in the Beaufort Sea and is proposing a new development project 6 miles offshore.

What’s more, the Obama administration can still decide to hold scheduled lease sales in the U.S. Arctic in 2016 and 2017. The administration is simultaneously working on a five-year plan for the region that could schedule lease sales through 2022—and potentially open new areas to offshore energy development for years to come.

Pew is not opposed to offshore drilling, but a balance must be struck between responsible energy development and protection of the environment. It remains urgent that the administration finalize strong Arctic-specific energy exploration and production regulations for safety and oil spill prevention and response—as well as safeguard the most ecologically and culturally important marine areas.

Arctic-specific offshore drilling standards must address the region’s remote location, lack of coastal infrastructure, and challenging weather. They should include seasonal drilling limits to ensure that a company is prepared to stop a spill before sea ice moves in. All equipment must be capable of working in arctic conditions such as ice and very low temperatures. And spill-response equipment must not only be on hand nearby so that response is not delayed by long travel times, but also should include redundant systems, such as a backup blowout preventer, in case of damage to the primary ones.

Such standards would not only help protect the people and wildlife that live in the U.S. Arctic, but should provide greater certainty for businesses that have invested there by clarifying the operational requirements. These standards could be a model for what can be done in the global Arctic where drilling is being considered or underway.

While strong standards would reduce the risk of blowouts and spills to the entire Arctic, certain marine areas in the U.S. Arctic feature ecosystems are so valuable to indigenous cultures and marine mammals that they should be excluded altogether from future offshore oil and gas exploration. That, together with Arctic-specific standards, would help achieve a balance between responsible economic development and the preservation of ecosystem integrity and function in the U.S. Arctic Ocean.

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