In a Seattle Times interview, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says she believes Arctic offshore drilling can proceed without doing harm but her department is working to help improve the safety culture.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell pins much of the blame for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster not on malfunctioning technology, but on people who failed to act at the first signs of trouble during the Gulf of Mexico drilling operation that unleashed the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
As Jewell looks forward to a new round of oil exploration off Alaska’s Arctic, she says a big part of the Interior Department’s enforcement work has been to help build a safety culture that empowers employees to respond when they see a problem.
“Nothing is foolproof. I do think that they (oil companies) can go up and do their jobs without doing harm,” Jewell said in an interview this week with The Seattle Times editorial board. “The technology will continue to evolve, and we will get better at it. But I think there are some very robust safeguards that have been put in place.”
On Tuesday, the Interior Department reapproved a contested Chukchi Sea oil and gas lease sale on Alaska’s North Slope. That sets the stage for Shell to resume drilling there this summer, using Seattle as a hub for its Arctic fleet.
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Jewell says Shell will be required to have the latest technology to prevent blowouts. She said Interior Department officials went to Bellingham this week to oversee the company’s demonstration of an oil-spill containment system.
Jewell, an engineer by training, became interior secretary in 2013 after a career that including work for Mobil Oil and as chief executive of Seattle-based REI. Her department oversees subsurface holdings rich in oil, natural gas and coal, and that has put her in a key position shaping development of fossil-fuel policy on public lands and in coastal waters.
“I have never been in a job that is so controversial,” Jewell said. “A couple of phrases that I use a lot: ‘No good deed goes unpunished in this job.’ Also, ‘There is no such thing as a no-brainer.’
“Anything that would seem simple to people is not simple. There is always a constituency on the other side that feels passionate.”
Offshore Arctic drilling has long been contested by environmental groups, which filed lawsuits against the Chukchi Lease, initially approved during the Bush administration. They say the risks of an oil spill are too high, noting an Interior Department study indicating a 75 percent chance of a spill during the estimated 64 years of Chukchi offshore development.
“Human error will exist, and in the Arctic there is less margin for error,” said Susan Murray, a deputy vice president of Oceana, an environmental group that’s part of the lawsuit challenging the lease. “If something goes wrong, it will go dramatically wrong.”
Gov. Jay Inslee also opposes the Arctic drilling. In a letter sent Tuesday to Jewell, Inslee asked her not to issue any new leases for drilling in that area.
In 2012, Shell’s drilling efforts off Alaska’s North Slope ran into trouble.
One oil rig went aground off Kodiak Island as it returned from the Arctic. A Shell contractor operating a drilling ship pleaded guilty to eight felony counts and was fined $12.2 million for safety and environmental crimes.
Shell currently is moving ships to a Port of Seattle terminal to prepare for the summer drilling season. Meanwhile, environmental groups have sued the Port, arguing that the lease, with Foss Maritime, was approved without a review required by state law.
Jewell say offshore Arctic oil exploration is already under way in Russia.
“It is better if it is going to happen that the U.S. is there, and helping drive the kinds of policies that are necessary to do it with the best technology and in the safest possible way,” she said.
Jewell also has been in the hot seat over U.S. coal policy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has denounced the Obama administration for a “war on coal.”
At the same time, environmentalists are pressing the Interior Department to reexamine leasing vast reserves of federal coal at a time when burning fossil fuels is forecast by scientists to dramatically escalate the effects of climate change.
Jewell, in a March speech, said there is a need to have an honest conversation about the U.S. coal-leasing program and climate change. But in her Seattle Times interview, she declined to talk about specifics because “we’re not there yet.”
She said her efforts could involve getting “the right people around the table” to talk about coal, and sorting out what tools her department has to address issues and what things only Congress can do.
Shifting U.S. coal-leasing policy is likely to take years and will carry into the next presidential administration.
“I definitely want to get things rolling and the discussion started while I’m still in the job,” Jewell said.