When the Obama Administration recently gave its approval for a round of drilling by a petroleum company in the Arctic region, many members of the media thought that the results would be a foregone conclusion. Upon further review, however, this hardly seems the case, and the legal issues and hurdles that drilling in the Artic give rise to, even with the Environmental Protection Agency’s blessing, are complex and myriad. In order to fully understand these legal implications, expert witnesses in environmental science, oil and gas, and chemical engineering will undoubtedly be needed.
The U.S. federal government, via the Obama administration, gave what seemed to be blanket approval and permission for one company to begin drilling in the Arctic region this summer. See, e.g., John Ryan, “President Obama’s Alaska visit yields little regarding Arctic Ocean drilling,” Alaska Public News, Sept. 7, 2015. However, despite what appeared to be a green light to start drilling operations, many legal factors may come into play, many of which may not have been anticipated by the general public. Expert witnesses in the oil & gas industry have pointed out a number of legal obstacles to Arctic drilling and potential consequences of that drilling does, indeed, actually take place. What follows is a discussion of just a few of the major concerns that legal expert witnesses have raised regarding the potential problems involved.
Because of both regulatory restrictions and environmental conditions (including the water temperature, season, and climate), “oil companies must work within a limited exploration season.” Jennifer A. Dlouhy, “Shell’s Arctic drilling plans may hit permitting snag,” Houston Chronicle, Jun. 23, 2015. The current set of permits issued by the U.S. government for Arctic drilling provide for two wells to begin operations. However, the wells are approximately 1,000 miles apart from one another, and different deadlines for when drilling operations must cease apply to each drilling location. Id. In the first drilling site, which is located in the Chukchi Sea, the company that has received permission to drill must cease its operations by September 28 of this year. Id. The second drilling site, located in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor, has a cutoff date of September 24. Id. These deadlines are due to several environmental factors, from a desire to avoid drilling during peak whaling seasons (which many Inupiat tribes rely upon as their primary source of food), to the sheer fact that drilling becomes nearly impossible once conditions are such that too much ice has accumulated. See, e.g., Jerry Beilinson, “Everything You Need to Know About Shell Oil and Arctic Offshore Drilling in Alaska,” Popular Mechanics, Sept. 14, 2012.
The weather in the Arctic region is no small hurdle to overcome, and, in fact, the company that was granted drilling permits by the U.S. government recently reported that such conditions had forced it to temporarily halt operations. Jennifer A. Dlouhy, “Facing fierce winds and high seas, Shell halts Arctic drilling,” Fuelfix.com, Aug. 28, 2015. The high winds that are “battering Alaska’s northern coastline and whipping through the state have forced” a stop into the exploratory drilling that began in July. Id. In addition, a separate rig, which had been in the area to assist in drilling operations, was removed entirely. Id.
In order to determine if climate and environmental conditions are even amenable to drilling, the company involved, government agencies, and countless environmental and chemical experts will have to weigh all the factors carefully. The legal, practical, and environmental risks of drilling at an inappropriate time are enormous, and such risks can give rise to disastrous consequences, such as oil spills.
In sum, the issue of whether or not Arctic drilling will be a reality soon is far from resolved. Aside from the implications of actually conducting the drilling, multiple questions continue to plague regulators, companies involved, and the industry as a whole, and experts in the field play an indispensable role in determining whether and when drilling operations can even begin.