Beyond Petroleum

On November 30, BP announced it was once again delaying drilling at its controversial “Liberty” project on Alaska’s north coast.  This is great news for the fragile Arctic Ocean ecosystem and the wildlife and communities it supports, but this project must be shelved for good.  

Oil from the BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout continues to wreak havoc on the gulf economy and ecosystems, against this backdrop it’s irresponsible and insane for BP to move forward at any point with Liberty, a project the company describes as one of “its biggest challenges to date.” Just as BP pushed the limits of deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico with the Deepwater Horizon,  the company proposes to push the boundaries in the Arctic with Liberty by drilling the longest ultra-extended reach wells in the world. Extended reach drilling technology is unproven, untested and more prone to the types of gas kicks that triggered the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. BP claims this latest delay is due to problems with the project’s massive drill rig, but no amount of re-jigging or rig redesign will eliminate the risk of accidents and oil spills.

BP’s own documents estimate an eight percent chance of a large oil spill at Liberty, which should be taken with a heap of salt given the company’s penchant for underestimating spill likelihood and size. Would you get onto a plane if you knew there was an eight percent chance of it crashing? Compounding the spill risk is the lack of adequate infrastructure and capacity to respond to an oil spill on the remote north coast of Alaska, and the fact that there is no proven technology to remove spilled oil from the Arctic Ocean. In short, if a large oil spill happened at Liberty,  BP simply would not have the capacity or technology to respond in what the company itself calls “some of the harshest weather on Earth.”

BP plans to use one of the largest, most powerful drill rigs in the world to access oil five miles off the north coast of Alaska under the icy waters of the Beaufort Sea.  To get at the oil, BP will drill two miles below the seabed and then six to eight miles sideways below federal waters, yet BP classifies Liberty as “onshore” because drilling will be initiated from a man-made gravel island connected to shore by a causeway. The federal government signed off on this faulty logic, exempting Liberty from the moratorium on  offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean put in place by the Obama administration in late May in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

Stop arctic drilling

The federal government also allowed BP to do its own environmental review of the Liberty project - the language and conclusions of the federal government’s October 2007 environmental assessment of the project is virtually identical to BP’s environmental impact analysis of the project submitted to the federal government six months earlier. BP already has a poor track record in Alaska – the company is still on probation following a pipeline spill caused by corrosion due to shoddy maintenance and upkeep. The spill went undetected for days and dumped more than 212,000 gallons of crude onto the tundra. It was the largest spill in the history of Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, which, along with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, has caused an average of 435 spills per year on the North Slope since 1996.  This fall a federal lawyer accused BP of violating its federal probation for oil spills on Alaska’s North Slope.

Given the ongoing Gulf oil disaster and BP’s shoddy track record in Alaska, the federal government should halt BP’s Liberty project as a first step toward enacting a national ban on future drilling in federal waters. Obama administration officials are expected to announce later today that they will not allow offshore oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico or off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as part of the next five-year drilling plan for federal waters. The administration must add federal waters in Alaska’s Arctic to the list of areas off-limits to drilling in the short term, and then extend the ban to all the nation’s waters so that no community or ecosystem ever has to experience what the Gulf is going through today.

- Melanie