Salazar freezes new drilling permits; Norway questions new drilling as well

The ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are now hitting home in the Arctic. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has ordered a temporary nationwide freeze on issuances of new permits for exploratory oil well drilling. The freeze will last until the White House has evaluated the Department of the Interior’s study on the disaster, for which the results are due May 28. The freeze is not a moratorium, as drilling already occurring on of the Outer Continental Shelf will be allowed to continue. However, the freeze could pose a problem for Shell, which was hoping to begin drilling in the Arctic July. Its main rig, the Frontier Discoverer, is already on its way to the Arctic with a number of support ships following. Without the necessary permits, however, Shell will not be able to drill.

Director Liz Birnbaum, head of the Minerals Management Service, said in a letter that the DoI

“will not make a final decision on the requested permits for the drilling of exploration wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas until the Department of Interior’s report to the President has been submitted and evaluated.”

Meanwhile in Norway, a country which has pioneered offshore oil drilling, media reports are stating that Norwegian technology could have helped avoid the catastrophe on the Gulf Coast. You can view one such article from Nettavisen in translation here. In Norway, most oil wells have a type of remote control technology in place, called an acoustic control, which can close the well from faraway. While this is not regulated by law, most companies have such controls in place. In fact, Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime AS is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of such technology, which operates up to depths of 4,000 meters (approximately 13,000 feet). The Deepwater rig did not have such controls in place.

Many Norwegians are concerned about the rigs in their waters, several of which are operated by the same company which ran the Deepwater rig, Transocean. The company’s Arctic rigs also rely on older technology. The Gulf Coast disaster has led to renewed criticisms of a potential plan to open up a region near the pristine Lofoten Islands to drilling. The government should reach a decision on whether companies can drill for oil and gas by the end of this year. The issue threatens to divide the three-party coalition government, with Kristin Halvorsen, the Minister of Education, campaigning strongly against it.

Furthermore, the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate recently slashed estimates of the amount of oil and gas near the Lofoten and Vesteraalen Islands from 2 million barrels to only 1.3 million barrels, giving environmentalists more fuel.

Rasmus Hansson, Secretary General of the World Wildlife Fund in Norway, remarked,

“The amount of oil in Lofoten and Vesteraalen indicated today means that we would only prolong Norway’s oil era by a year or half a year. The question is: is it really worth it?”

This is a question which many more Americans and Norwegians will undoubtedly be asking themselves in the months to come.

News links

“BP oil spill halts US drilling permits, for now,” Christian Science Monitor

“Gulf oil spill: Interior secretary extends drill freeze to Arctic,” Los Angeles Times (Greenspace blog)

“Norway cuts Lofoten oil view, boosting greens,” Reuters

“Norsk teknologi kunne forhindret oljekatastrofen,” Nettavisen

“Gulf crisis plays into Lofoten conflict,” Views and News from Norway

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