Dems raise drilling safety concerns after Arctic oil rig accident


“The Coast Guard and Interior Department will be investigating the causes of this incident, so it's too soon to draw any firm conclusions. But as I've said before, I plan to look at drilling safety rules this year, to see if regulators are doing enough to make sure offshore drilling operations aren't putting lives or the environment at risk,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenErnst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Senate Dems blast Barr for 'clear violation' of duty in Stone case, urge him to resign Overnight Health Care: Nevada union won't endorse before caucuses after 'Medicare for All' scrap | McConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills | CDC confirms 15th US coronavirus case MORE (D-Ore.).

The Kulluk episode is the latest in a string of Arctic mishaps for Shell. Its other Arctic drilling rig, the Noble Discoverer, also nearly grounded, and the firm’s blowout containment dome, the Arctic Challenger, failed safety tests.

Shell in 2012 won federal permission to begin preliminary drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska’s coast. But a series of problems, such as failure to get final sign-offs on critical spill containment equipment, led regulators to withhold permission to drill into oil-bearing zones.

Republicans, who say increasing offshore drilling would provide a boost for the economy, urged caution on indicting the oil company.

“We need to find out exactly what happened and the extent of it,” House Natural Resources Chairman Doc HastingsRichard (Doc) Norman HastingsCongress just resolved a 20-year debate over Neolithic remains Boehner hires new press secretary GOP plots new course on Endangered Species Act reform MORE (R-Wash.) told The Hill.

But a group of liberal House Democrats who advocate energy efficiency and renewable energy said the Kulluk incident highlighted the risks of Arctic drilling.

“The recent grounding of Shell’s Kulluk oil rig amplifies the risks of drilling in the Arctic. This is the latest in a series of alarming blunders,” the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition said in a Thursday statement.

Green groups went a step further, calling on the Obama administration to withhold permits for offshore Arctic drilling.

Environmental group Oceana sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday, calling on him to stop future drilling in the Arctic “to prevent the catastrophe that we have thus far avoided.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) also plans to send a formal request to the White House asking for a halt to offshore Arctic permitting.

“No matter how much Shell has poured into the Arctic drilling — and it has been a lot — it cannot make the effort anything but a terrifying gamble,” Chuck Clusen, director of national parks and Alaska projects with NRDC, said in a Thursday media call.

Republicans resisted the idea of stopping Arctic drilling. 

Rep. John FlemingJohn Calvin FlemingThe Hill's Morning Report - Iran strikes US bases in Iraq; Trump to speak today In Australia's nightmare, a vision of the planet's future The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems aim to end anti-Semitism controversy with vote today MORE (R-La.) reflected on battling President Obama’s decision to impose a six-month freeze on new deepwater drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 BP oil spill.

The ban was formally lifted in October of 2010 but permits were not issued again until early 2011.

Fleming, who chairs a Natural Resources subcommittee, said he hoped “the administration learned from that mistake,” saying the stoppage cost his state jobs.

“So hopefully they will do the right thing in that, and really deal with it as it really is. I mean, accidents are going to happen any time that you’re doing things that are highly scientific and a lot of engineering,” Fleming told The Hill, adding the industry has instituted safeguards to manage environmental risk.

Fleming did say, however, that he would support the federal government working with industry to improve safety measures. He called that a better option than barring drilling.

“I have no problem with taking a cautious approach,” Fleming said. “They need to be accountable to government because that’s the way they’re accountable to people.”

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiDemocrats worried about Trump's growing strength The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' MORE (R-Alaska), the top Republican on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, met with Coast Guard officials in Anchorage, Alaska, on Tuesday, where she was briefed on the accident.

“The extreme winter weather and high seas in the Gulf of Alaska and subsequent grounding of the Kulluk is a horrible situation for any vessel,” Murkowski said in a Tuesday statement. “The focus now needs to be on securing the Kulluk and protecting local residents and the environment from potential fuel spills.”

—Ben Geman contributed.