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US gets tough on Arctic oil drilling

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20 March 2013

DRILLING for oil in the Arctic could get a lot tougher. The US is considering strict rules to protect the fragile polar environment, after a report found Shell tried to drill there while underprepared.

Shell attempted to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas last year, but ran into problems: drilling rigs ran aground and vessels did not meet environmental standards. The company is now holding off until 2014, when ConocoPhillips also plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea.

On 14 March the US Department of the Interior, which regulates drilling, released the results of a fast-tracked investigation into Shell’s difficulties. The report says Shell was “not fully prepared” due to management “shortcomings”.

To resume drilling, Shell will need approval from the federal government and, for the first time, independent reviewers. Shell must now submit a far more comprehensive plan detailing how its ships will get to the drill site, drilling procedures and the planned response to an oil spill.

The report also recommends specific drilling regulations for the Arctic. These could include ice-class vessels and the type of relief well needed to alleviate a blowout.

That is sensible, says Marilyn Heiman of the Pew Environment Group in Washington DC. Storms, ice and remoteness make Arctic drilling risky. “Shell is one of the best,” she says. “Even they were unable to deal with the challenge.”

This article appeared in print under the headline “Arctic mistakes”

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