Offshore drilling adviser supports ‘balanced’ Arctic development

Environmental groups oppose drilling in the harsh Arctic climate off Alaska's northern coast, calling it a threat to whales, polar bears and other endangered and sensitive wildlife that inhabit the region.

That pressure increased late last week when top officials with the Center for American Progress (CAP) – a liberal think tank with deep White House ties – came out against Arctic drilling.

CAP senior fellow Carol Browner, who was formerly Obama’s White House “energy czar,” and CAP founder John Podesta wrote in a joint Bloomberg op-ed that “it has become clear that there is no safe and responsible way to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean.”

But Hunter, asked whether there should be a “pause” in Arctic development to allow technology to improve, said he believes it should be allowed to proceed on a limited basis.

“If you keep the pace very measured, if you keep the actives on a balanced course, which is starting initial operations in the early drilling season, which went on this last year, and then learning from that and improving your operations going forward, I think it can be done in a balanced way and I think it can be done effectively,” Hunter said.

The offshore safety committee – a mix of federal agency officials, industry representatives, academics and others – was created in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill and this month offered a series of recommendations to the Interior Department.

They include development of Arctic-specific regulatory standards.

Shell, one of several major oil companies holding undeveloped leases in the Arctic, began preliminary operations last year. The company suffered a series of mishaps, and did not win federal permission to drill into oil-bearing zones, but did proceed with some so-called "top-hole drilling."

Shell’s various woes included damage, during testing, to a critical piece of equipment that would be needed to contain a subsea blowout.

Also, the Kulluk drilling rig ran aground en route back from the region.

The problems have created question marks around whether Shell will drill in the Arctic in 2013.

Shell’s Alaskan woes prompted a new, “high-level” Interior Department review that will “help inform future permitting” in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.