Obama doubles down on Arctic drilling regs

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The Obama administration still plans to issue regulations for oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean despite Royal Dutch Shell's decision to abandon its drilling efforts “for the foreseeable future.”

Brian Salerno, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), said regulators are moving forward with their rules, even though drilling is not likely to return to the Arctic for years, or even decades.

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“It still matters,” Salerno told Platts in an interview released Monday. “It’s not pushed to the back burner. We’re committed to going forward and finalizing the rule.”

BSEE proposed the regulations earlier this year as an attempt to account for the unique qualities of the Arctic Ocean, including its remoteness, extreme weather and wildlife.

The agency wants to require drillers to keep a backup rig nearby to drill relief wells for blowouts, be able to contain spills through mechanical means and restrict the drilling season based on ice cover, among other provisions.

Salerno said the need for the rules still stands.

“It’s very much something we feel we need to do to provide clarity, not only to the industry, but also to the public as to what will be expected, should another operator decide to exercise their rights to the leases that they hold,” he said.

The oil industry and Republicans have sharply criticized the proposal as overly prescriptive, expensive and unnecessary, while Democrats and environmentalists say the rules don’t go nearly far enough to prevent oil spills.

The regulatory effort was largely spurred by Shell’s 2012 drilling attempt, which resulted in multiple mishaps, including its drilling rig running aground on an Alaska island.

Multiple other companies, such as ConocoPhillips and Statoil, hold leases to drilling rights in the United States portion of the Arctic Ocean, but no companies have set plans to drill there.

Royal Dutch Shell last week abandoned its plans to drill in the Arctic, citing low oil and gas volumes after its exploratory drilling this summer.