Monday, June 4, 2012

Emerging Issues in the Arctic, Part IV: The Technological Challenge of Offshore Drilling

Iceburg off NFL coast

Iceberg off the Newfoundland Coast

Two weeks ago I traveled to St. John’s, Newfoundland to attend an industry conference on offshore drilling in the Arctic. (In the interests of full disclosure and by way of explanation: I won a full registration fee waiver in a lottery, and the prohibitively expensive event became merely expensive.) The marine engineers, deep sea pipe-layers, winterization technology inventors, community relations liaisons, and oil and gas men from Houston, Calgary, and Scandinavia kept asking me what I was doing there. (There were exactly two other lawyers, and no other law professors present.) I kept explaining: I know what the political and legal postures are, but I want to learn how players inside the industry are approaching the Arctic frontier.

One thing I quickly learned was that the extraordinary challenges confronting drilling in the extreme conditions of Arctic waters represent different things to different people. For environmentalists, these challenges represent a threat – to existing ecosystems, wildlife, subsistence lifestyles, and stories about what the Arctic is and means. For people in the oil and gas industry, and to the contractors who service them, the challenges represent economic opportunity. There is more to it than that, of course, but the dichotomy between these perspectives is both striking and revealing: Challenge = Threat vs. Challenge = Opportunity.

It is easy to see why the groups find it hard to find middle ground.

I also came to better understand the nature and extent of the technological challenges confronting offshore drilling in the Arctic result. The challenges are significant, amounting to what Dr. Ove Tobias Ice Tank Gudmestad, a Danish professor of marine technology with a long history of consulting for StatOil, called an “extreme design situation.” One must deal with, among other things: (1) remote locations that are a long way from an operational base, emergency transport, a place to evacuate to, or a settlement large enough to accommodate the thousands of people required to contend with a large oil spill; (2) icebergs drifting by and threatening to collide with a rig; (3) developing, operating and maintaining year-round drilling systems in various ice conditions, from single-season ice that can be about 6 feet thick at its maximum to the multi-year ice that averages about 9 feet in thickness; and (4) contending with half a year or more of darkness and bone-warping cold. Ice tanks such as those housed at the National Research Centre’s Institute for Ocean Technology in St. John’s (pictured to the right) and at Aker Arctic Technology in Finland, allow for scale-model testing, but as more than one engineer admitted to me, scale-model testing is particularly iffy when it comes to thick ice. 

The technological challenges are only underscored by the current knowledge gaps. In terms of environmental assessment, there is a real scarcity of biological information on the newly accessible areas of the Arctic, meaning there is, or is going to be, a lack of a baseline from which to measure impacts. In terms of responding to oil spills, there is sparse information on how and how well manual containment and recovery will occur, on the success-rates of in-situ burning, and on how or whether dispersants will work under the ice. Perhaps most importantly, however, is what Dr. Gudmestad, riffing on Donald Rumsfeld, referred to as “the unknown unknown.” Dr. Gudmestad pointed out that, “In the past, the Arctic was mysteries.” It still is. As Dr. Gudmestad put it: “Twenty years ago we were almost exactly where we are today in terms of drilling in the Arctic.”

Depending on your narrative frame, that fact will be either terribly troubling or enormously inspiring.

In a related note: In my last post, I wrote about the 9th Circuit oral argument in Native Village of Point Hope vs. Salazar. Last week, the 9th Circuit issued an opinion upholding BOEM’s approval of Shell’s exploratory drilling plan in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Lawsuits remain challenging the air permits issued by EPA, but Shell is one step closer to drilling this summer.

- Michael Burger

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