BP Oil Drilling Plan For Alaska Attracts Criticism

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BP is moving ahead with an offshore drilling project in Alaska's Arctic Ocean. The project pushes the boundaries of standard practice in the industry. Critics are concerned about the possibility of another spill like the one in Gulf.

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So BP is still working on a permanent solution for the Gulf of Mexico spill, which will likely involve the relief wells that the company's been drilling. And while that effort continues, another one of BP's offshore projects is attracting criticism. This one involves plans to tap a reservoir called Liberty. It's in the Arctic Ocean off of Alaska. The Liberty Project involves a technology that will push the boundaries of standard practice in the industry.

The company had hoped to begin drilling this fall, but scrutiny from state and federal agencies has convinced BP to delay the project for at least three months.

Alaska Public Radio Network's Annie Feidt has more.

ANNIE FEIDT: Four mornings a week, Cathy Foerster swims 50 laps in an Anchorage swimming pool.

Ms. CATHY FOERSTER (Commissioner, Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission): It gives you a lot of time to worry about things.

FEIDT: Foerster is a commissioner with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that oversees oil and gas drilling. And as she glides through the water these days, her thoughts often turn to the BP oil spill.

Ms. FOERSTER: We've all been thinking about, you know, what's the risk here? What should we do to make sure that nothing like that could happen here?

FEIDT: BP's Liberty development is seen as an offshore project for two reasons. First, the massive drill rig is sitting on a manmade gravel island in Alaska waters. Second, the oil reservoir they'll be tunneling out to is eight horizontal miles away from land, 10,000 feet underneath the Beaufort Sea. The technique is called ultra extended reach. It's not new in the industry, but this project is likely to set a distance record.

And Foerster says that makes it challenging.

Ms. FOERSTER: The further out you go, the harder it gets. It's, like, we've been to the moon, why can't we go to Saturn? You know what I'm saying? Every time you take it out a little bit further, the complexities increase.

FEIDT: Still, Foerster says the chance of a big oil spill occurring is very small. For one thing, the blowout preventer for Liberty is on land, not under 5,000 feet of water. That's the piece of safety equipment that failed so spectacularly in the Gulf of Mexico.

Carl Mountford is BP's program manager for Liberty. He acknowledges it's a complex project with little room for error. But he's confident it can be done cleanly.

Mr. CARL MOUNTFORD (BP Program Manager, Liberty Project): I'm shocked by what we're seeing in the Gulf of Mexico, everybody in the company is. It's the type of thing that you never think and hope will never happen to you or anyone else, to be honest. But in this project, my team has worked really hard to ensure we have a rock solid design that we can safely execute without the risk of any type of event like that.

FEIDT: Environmental groups aren't so sure. They want the Interior Department to keep BP from drilling until a new environmental review can be done.

Ms. REBECCA NOBLIN (Alaska Director, Center for Biological Diversity) : BP essentially wrote its own environmental reviews.

FEIDT: Rebecca Noblin is Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Ms. NOBLIN: The government has not given this project a close look and has not really considered the environmental consequences.

FEIDT: The Liberty Environmental Review was written by the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service in 2007. Federal reports later found the agency was too cozy with the oil industry and that these types of environmental reviews in Alaska were often flawed.

Under the Obama administration, the agency is being reorganized and renamed. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will be responsible for environmental reviews for projects like this one. But Noblin says she's not sure the reform is meaningful.

Ms. NOBLIN: So far, MMS has changed its name and we're not sure what else they're changing. We certainly hope that the name change and the structural changes will lead to a real genuine change of culture within the agency.

FEIDT: Despite repeated requests over several weeks, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management wouldn't make anyone available for this story. In a written statement, the Interior Department did say they'll be reviewing the spill plan for the Liberty Project. And in his Senate confirmation hearing last month, BOEM director Michael Bromwich, promised to make sure the agency wrote an adequate environmental review for the project.

In Alaska, state regulators like Kathy Foerster want to do more.

Ms. FOERSTER: You know, we can have the best regulations in the world in place, but what are we going to do to keep somebody from making a bad judgment. And the only way we can do it is if we have somebody that isn't reporting to them, but rather is reporting to us, who has the authority to shut them in the second something stupid is done.

FEIDT: Foerster proposes having someone who reports to the state on site. That person could watch over BP's Liberty operation 24/7. That level of oversight has never been applied on a drill rig in Alaska. BP had expected to begin producing oil from Liberty next year. But the company now describes the timeline as a moving target.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.

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