WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday he is concerned about the series of blunders surrounding Shell's recent Arctic drilling and is looking to a government investigation for answers.
"We don't know what went wrong, and that's why it's important that this high-level review occur," Salazar told reporters. "There is a troubling sense that I have that so many things went wrong."
Although Salazar stressed that the Obama administration remains committed to Arctic energy development, he stopped short of saying Shell would be able to resume drilling exploratory oil wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer.
In announcing the "expedited, high-level assessment" of Shell's 2012 Arctic drilling program on Tuesday, the Interior Department pledged the inquiry would be complete within 60 days and would "help inform future permitting processes in the region."
Shell and the Coast Guard are still inspecting the Kulluk conical drilling unit, which grounded on an uninhabited Alaskan island on New Year's Eve and has since been towed to a sheltered bay 30 miles away.
Given possible damage to the Kulluk, "it may be that Shell isn't even ready to move forward in 2013," Salazar said at an Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee meeting. "We need to make sure than when it does happen, that we do it in a way that is safe and protective of the environment."
Most of Shell's mishaps happened while its rigs were traveling to and from U.S. Arctic waters, including the drillship Noble Discoverer's out-of-control drift near Dutch Harbor, Alaska, last July, the failure of a unique oil spill containment system during a deployment drill last September and the grounding of the Kulluk rig as it traveled to a Seattle shipyard for maintenance.
Speaking to reporters in Houston, Shell Oil Co. Pres. Marvin Odum said that he drew a distinction "between maritime transport" and Arctic drilling.
"We finished the season safely, and that distinction is important," Odum said. "Clearly, there are things to learn. We recognize we are an industry that deals with a lot of risk, but that's how we become good at what we do."
Environmentalists, however, say the episodes confirm that even routine maritime operations surrounding Arctic drilling are too risky and underscore the need for a slower approach, if not an outright halt to oil exploration in the forbidding, remote region.
Salazar repeatedly insisted he would not "prejudge" the outcome of the 60-day review of 2012 Arctic drilling operations.
His comments came as engineers, oil industry representatives and environmentalists on the Interior Department's Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Arctic Subcommittee urged federal regulators to adopt baseline standards that would govern a new era of oil drilling and possibly production in Arctic waters.
The U.S. chief offshore drilling regulator, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, may pursue Arctic standards, said the agency's director, James Watson.
Right now, there are no specific mandates governing Arctic oil development.
Some critics worry that without those requirements, safeguards voluntarily adopted by Shell Oil Co. in 2012 -- including a spill-containment device like the systems required for deep-water exploration in the Gulf of Mexico -- would not be followed by other oil companies planning Arctic drilling, including ConocoPhillips, Statoil and Repsol.
Environmentalists insist that Arctic standards would help set a floor for protections in the fragile region, by possibly requiring ice-capable equipment and specifying how close rigs need to be for drilling relief wells in case of an emergency.
Marilyn Heiman, Arctic Program director with Pew Environment Group and a member of the subcommittee, said, "The Obama administration needs to impose Arctic-specific safety, training and spill response standards and ensure the proper precautions are in place before approving any additional drilling. Clearly we're not there yet."
Emily Pickrell of The Houston Chronicle contributed from Houston.
By JENNIFER A. DLOUHY