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More half-truth about risks posed by Liberty project

Craig Medred

Now it's the New York Times gone wild, acting like that proverbial blogger in the basement making things up, as former and failed Republican vice-president candidate Sarah Palin still sometimes claims of the media in general.

 

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Endicott Causeway
"The Gray Lady," the national newspaper of record, or what used to be such, is headlining "BP Is Pursuing Alaska Drilling Some Call Risky." The drilling in question is the Liberty prospect, the most important drilling scheduled for this year in the Prudhoe Bay area, and the "some" are an unnamed "scientist" or two supposedly with the U.S. Minerals Management Service and an advocate for an environmental group.

 

Offshore drilling is shut down in the U.S. at the moment in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil gusher disaster, the story notes, "but BP's project, called Liberty, has been exempted as regulators have granted it status as an 'onshore' project even though it is about three miles off the coast in the Beaufort Sea. The reason: It sits on an artificial island -- a 31-acre pile of gravel in about 22 feet of water -- built by BP."

That claim is maybe half right. The drill pad for Liberty is along the Endicott Causeway which extends three miles or so out into the Beaufort Sea north of Prudhoe Bay, but the satellite drilling island, as the Liberty site is called, is only about halfway along the causeway. And even though it's called an island, its attachment to the manmade gravel causeway really makes it part of a peninsula.

MMS, a federal agency with more than a few problems, has a strong case here for classifying this drill site as "onshore," if for no other reason than that you can drive to the drill pad.

The NYT doesn't seem to grasp much of this.

"Several companies have built artificial islands to drill offshore in the Arctic and elsewhere, in part because surging ice floes can destroy conventional floating or metal-legged offshore drilling platforms. Critics say that such islands are so tiny that a large oil spill will quickly flow into the surrounding waters," it says.

Again, it is about half right. North Slope Alaska operators have built artificial islands, and surging ice is part of the problem, but the bigger issue is cost. The water off the North Slope is shallow and gravel is cheap. It is easier to build a gravel island in four to 20 feet of water than to pay for the design of an expensive platform capable of dealing with ice. Such platforms do exist. They are in operation in the North Atlantic, where a certain ship called the "Titantic" was sunk by ice. No platforms have, as yet, been sunk.

As for the "spill (that) will quickly flow into the surrounding waters," BP doesn't start drilling until September. It won't hit any oil (look under 'Deepwater Horizon, relief well' for how long it takes to reach the goo) for months. By the time it does, the Liberty drill site will be surrounded by ice on which heavy equipment can be driven. If this one blows, BP can berm the oil up in a snow-banked reservoir, pump it out and haul it away.

Admittedly, this is the non-alarmist view, but in the wake of the Deepwater disaster, the alarmist view rules the day. Again the NYT:

"‘The whole process for approving Liberty was bizarre,' one of the federal scientists said. The scientists and other critics say they are worried about a replay of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico because the Liberty project involves a method of drilling called extended reach that experts say is more prone to the types of gas kicks that triggered the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon."

Who these unnamed scientists are and whether they know anything about geology and drilling is unknown. As for a replay of the "disaster in the Gulf of the Mexico," well, there are a couple facts worth noting here. First is BP's plan to punch two "injector wells" into the Liberty Prospect. It will use these to pump in water to force out oil.

Second, even with the use of injection, the company doesn't expect to be able to get more than 40,000 barrels per day. The Deepwater blowout, without any added pressurization, is now leaking at the rate of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day and, by many indications, increasing daily.

The Deepwater Horizon's Macondo well is a gusher. Had it happened on land, as did the Spindletop Hill blowout in Texas in 1901, it might have started another oil rush. Spindletop was not considered a disaster; it was considered a bonanza.

If Liberty were to blow out as Spindletop did, given the recoverability of oil flowing onto ice near Endicott, who knows what it might be considered.

All of which brings one to the real gem in the NYT story:

"The Liberty field lies about five miles from land under the shallow waters of the Beaufort Sea in an area populated during the winter by seals and polar bears and covered by thick floating ice. During the summer, bowhead whales migrate through the region."

This is all true, although it does make one wonder if there is any non-floating ice. This is also equally irrelevant, because the Liberty wellhead, the place where any oil would emerge from the ground, is six to eight miles from the Liberty field. In the event of a blowout, the oil would come up along the Endicott causeway. The seals and polar bears on and beneath the ice above the Liberty filed likely wouldn't even notice a blowout.

As for the whales that migrate through the area, they are miles offshore from Liberty and miles and miles from where any oil might emerge from the pipes at Endicott.

If there is a blowout....

The story says "an expert in extended-reach drilling and director of the department of energy resources at Seoul National University (apparently the one in Korea)" worries about the danger of gas "kicks" causing one when drilling directionally. This view is countered by the obligatory disclaimer from "a former owner of a company that specialized in extended-reach drilling," who says gas kicks in extended-reach projects are less of a problem than in standard, vertical well drilling.'

It is impossible to tell from their competing comments whether directional drilling is less safe, more safe or as safe/unsafe as conventional drilling. The story cites no major directional drilling blowouts, nor does it note that the biggie before Deepwater was East Timor off Australia, which was also being drilled straight down.

There is, however, some substances buried in the NYT story near the end where most people will never see it.

"On April 20, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration warned BP that it was in "probable violation" of federal standards because of corrosion found on its Endicott oil pipeline and a lack of records indicating corrosion protection and monitoring efforts," the NYT reports, "BP has faced a number of challenges at its Alaska facilities. The company sustained two corrosion-caused leaks in its rigs in Prudhoe Bay in 2006, including a leak of over 200,000 gallons that cost the company around $20 million in fines and restitution. This was the largest spill to have occurred on Alaska's North Slope."

Aging infrastructure is the real oil-spill threat facing Alaska's North Slope. If BP were to blow out the Liberty rig during drilling operations in winter, cleanup would be relatively easy. Not so for a major rupture of a corroded pipe in the June or July. Then there would be oil spreading all over sensitive tundra.

And corrosion on the North Slope is a problem. The facilities there are aging jalopies. They can only be kept running so long. This issue could use a lot more reporting by a lot more reporters, but the pack seems to be chasing blindly after the next Deepwater blowout.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.