Federal agency moves to revise OCS drilling rules

In the final days of the Trump administration, federal environmental regulators are proposing to roll back some of the Arctic offshore drilling requirements mandated in 2016.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Safety and Environmental Enforcement on Nov. 19 released the framework of proposed regulations for drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas that agency leaders say will ease the burden of environmental protection on industry without increasing the risk of an oil spill in a sensitive environment through the use of new technologies.

The prospective regulatory changes — which as of Nov. 24 hadn’t been posted to the Federal Register — follow the directives laid out in 2017 orders from President Donald Trump and then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the 2016 rules and recommend changes that would encourage additional exploratory drilling off of Alaska’s Arctic coast.

Documents outlining the proposed changes state the new regulations would make it easier for operators holding federal leases in the Beaufort or Chukchi to gradually explore their holdings and obtain a Suspension of Operations approval to prevent 10-year lease terms from expiring before work is completed due to the short seasonal operating window in Arctic waters.

The revisions would also cut the authority of regional BSEE supervisors to require the capture of water-based drilling muds and cuttings in instances where subsistence resources could be impacted by discharges of the fluids. This change would alleviate uncertainty for industry caused by an apparent overlap of authority with Environmental Protection Agency requirements, according to a joint agency fact sheet on the proposal.

The requirement of operators to file an integrated operation plan, or IOP, would be eliminated as well because much of the information in an IOP is also required in exploration plans filed with BOEM, according to the agencies.

Changes to requirements for Arctic offshore drillers to have a drilling rig on standby to drill a relief well and well control equipment are also being advanced.

“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,” Deputy Interior Secretary Kate MacGregor said in a formal statement. “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.”

A 60-day public comment period will start once the proposed regulations are published in the Federal Register, according to the agencies, meaning the changes would have to be finalized by the Biden administration.

Alaska Wilderness League spokesman Corey Himrod wrote via email that while he can’t speculate on what the Biden administration will do, but noted it’s unlikely the incoming administration would finalize a move to quickly finalize regulations repealing what was put in place by the Obama administration.

“Our view is certainly that the next administration should be strengthening safety regulations when it comes to oil spills, not limiting them,” Himrod wrote.

Alaska Oil and Gas Association Regulatory and Legal Affairs Manager Patrick Bergt said he would be able to discuss the changes once they are officially posted.

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Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/25/2020 - 10:19am