I was at an eco-salon at our Chicago office recently, talking about the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. The topic of BP’s activities in the Arctic came up and people started laughing when I described BP’s claim that, by drilling an oil well from an artificial island on the Outer Continental Shelf in the Beaufort Sea, it was not actually drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.
That would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous. BP is making this claim to ease the way for approval of its massive ultra-extended-range oil project on the North Slope of Alaska, in Prudhoe Bay. BP's original design for the project had the drilling starting from a drilling rig offshore, in the waters of Prudhoe Bay. BP conducted an environmental review of sorts and obtained approval from the Minerals Management Service (now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement). Then BP changed the design from a drilling rig in the ocean to one located on an artificial island that is connected to the shore by a long causeway. BP did not conduct any additional environmental review, nor was it asked to by MMS. After the Deepwater Horizon blowout in April, 2010, when talk of a moratorium on offshore drilling began, BP took the view that this project was not offshore. Amusing, no?
What is not amusing is the unacceptable level of risk involved in this project. By BP's own admission, this will be the longest slant-drilling project ever attempted in the United States. It will use new, untested technology to drill eight miles at an angle to reach oil deposits. According to a recent New York Times story, there is an increased risk of natural gas “kicks” or surges in wells of this type. We all know what over-reliance on technology brought us in the Gulf of Mexico.
The environmental review that BP conducted for its on-ocean project is laughably inadequate in its description of the size of a potential spill and the ability of BP to clean one up should it occur. As my colleague Chuck Clusen has pointed out, there is no history of a successful oil spill containment or cleanup in broken ice. Consider how long it has taken to remove even one-quarter of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout from the warm-water Gulf of Mexico in the summer. How much longer would it take during the sub-freezing Arctic winter?
What's at stake in BP's Prudhoe Bay project is injury by oil to the bowhead whales that frequent the area and that the First Nations people hunt for food, as well as injury to other marine mammals and aquatic life. Polar bears frequent the shoreline near the artificial island. And the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not far away.
NRDC and others have asked Department of the Interior Secretary Salazar to stop this project. First Nations villages in the area also oppose it. The State of Alaska is taking another look at it. I hope that the word games that BP is playing about whether this project is on shore or offshore don't distract the regulators from the simple fact that this BP project should not be allowed to go forward.