Photo: Alaska coast; Source: Alaska Wilderness League

Trump looking to loosen safety rules for Arctic Ocean drilling

In a last-ditch effort to open up more acreage for offshore drilling, the Trump administration proposed to loosen Obama-era safety regulations for the oil industry in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska.

With 60 days until President-elect Joe Biden takes office on 20 January, the Trump administration has little time to ease any rules dictating petroleum extraction in the Alaskan region.

Before anything else is said, it is worth noting that whatever move Trump makes towards enabling more offshore drilling Biden is likely to throw it out once he is in the Oval office.

Donald Trump in the Oval office; Source: White House
Donald Trump in the Oval office; Source: White House

The new proposal would revise a suite of Obama-era rules crafted to improve safety in the extreme conditions of the Arctic after a Shell drilling rig ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska in 2012. Following the incident, the company abandoned oil exploration in the Arctic and there are no active drilling operations there.

The revisions would specifically eliminate a requirement that oil operators submit a detailed operations plan before filing an exploration request, according to a statement by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

The administration would also roll back a rule requiring operators to demonstrate they can quickly deploy containment equipment in case of spills, such as capping stacks or domes.

Deputy Secretary of the Interior Kate MacGregor said: “As countries like Russia increase their presence in the Arctic – including the use of U.S. technologies to develop their seabed resources – it is increasingly important to ensure that the United States has a strong presence in the Arctic OCS.

The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas have a long legacy of oil and gas development – we believe these proposed revisions will better harness new technological innovation and best science to allow for responsible domestic energy development off the coast of Alaska”.

BSEE Director Scott Angelle added: “Our efforts to reform overly burdensome regulations continue to be careful, tailored, and balanced. Working with our BOEM teammates, we developed proposed revisions that consider conditions specific to the Arctic Region and make sense. We look forward to the public comment period and continued engagement with Alaska Native stakeholders”.

Currently, much of the U.S. portion of the Arctic Ocean – the Chukchi Sea and part of the Beaufort Sea – can’t be leased for new oil and gas drilling under a 2019 judge’s order that overturned Trump’s effort to open vast areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans to oil leasing.

During his campaign, Biden has also vowed to ban all new drilling in federal lands and waters once he takes office.

The changes were welcomed by the American Petroleum Institute (API), which said developing Arctic resources is critical to U.S. national security.

API SVP of policy, economics, and regulatory affairs Frank Macchiarola stated: “We look forward to reviewing a proposal that seeks to correct short-sighted restrictions to research and exploration of the world’s largest remaining conventional, undiscovered oil and natural gas resources”.

On the other end of the scale, environmental group Alaska Wilderness League said in a statement that the rollback increases the risk that an oil spill in the region would endanger wildlife and coastal communities.

The executive director of the environmental group also reflected on the most recent U.S. lease sale and its impact on the environment.

Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League said: “With its electoral fate sealed and its days left in office numbered, this lease sale is one more box the Trump administration is trying to check off for its oil industry allies before vacating the White House in January.

It’s not surprising that Trump’s Interior is pushing a last-second lease sale in the Arctic considering its political appointees are essentially industry insiders, but it is disappointing that this administration until the very end has maintained such low regard for American’s public lands, or the wildlife and Indigenous communities that depend on them”.

Before it can be finalized, the proposal will undergo a 60-day public comment period that will begin once the rules are published in the Federal Register.

Another curious case in this whole Trump-Biden dynamic is that the current president has not yet conceded and admitted defeat in the election. Even in recounts, Biden won some states like Georgia.

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