BP preparing for deep, remote arctic drilling

With all eyes fixated on the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, BP is stealthily moving toward what could easily be this country’s (and the world’s) next environmental catastrophe: Deep-sea drilling in remote reaches of the Arctic. But will the Minerals Management Service (MMS) stop it? According to a report that appeared in Rolling Stones magazine, no.

Many environmentalists assert that President Obama’s moratorium on offshore drilling is nothing more than a stall tactic engineered to allow the public’s anger to abate before MMS gives BP and other oil giants the green light to drill in an area that has always been off limits: the Arctic. Moreover, BP’s spill-response plans and worse-case scenarios are every bit as inadequate and irresponsible as its Deepwater Horizon plans, which the MMS approved.

Geologists believe that the untapped Arctic region holds a sea of oil, by many estimates as much as 27 billion barrels large. That’s over 1.1 trillion gallons.

BP’s plan will likely be put into action this fall because it is not bound by regular offshore drilling regulations. The unproven, experimental approach would begin with BP building a little gravel island three miles off the coast of Alaska in Prudhoe Bay. The island rig would then be connected to the mainland by a causeway, thereby the freeing it from the usual restrictions of offshore drilling because it would be legally fictionalized as an onshore facility.

BP would drill 2 miles below the little island, which it has named “Liberty.” The drillers would then drill sideways for an additional 8 miles before reaching the first oil reservoir. This highly risky procedure has never been performed before and pushes offshore drilling to the extreme. One BP official boasted to reporters in 2008 that the proposed plan was “about as sexy as it gets.”

BP is already considered a repeat felon in the U.S., having racked up a record number of safety violations and federal fines. Still, the law-breaking company enjoys free reign because safety and the environment take a back seat to money.

Last year, MMS gave BP a leadership award in recognition of Liberty’s “visionary approach” to drilling. The agency considers the Liberty island  plan to be safe and sound because BP submitted that it could respond to a worst-case spill of 20,000 barrels a day. Moreover, BP’s spill cleanup plans are every bit as absurd as the plans that it filed for the Deepwater Horizon venture, which had the company rescuing seals and walruses from the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists hired to assess the safety of drilling in the Gulf have warned President Obama about the grave environmental risks at stake. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) last year urged the President to halt future Arctic oil leases, warning that MMS regulators were enforcing stripped-down Bush-era guidelines and had greatly understated the risks of Arctic drilling. Shell, another company with approved plans to drill in the Arctic, says that it is prepared to recover just 5,500 barrels per day. That small number isn’t surprising in light of the fact that it has spilled the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez disaster in Nigeria every year for decades.

Despite all these ominous signs, both BP and Shell are set to begin drilling in the Arctic Sea within a year. The Arctic  is an unforgiving environment that humans have very little contact with or control over. Unlike the Gulf, where experienced engineers and relief equipment are nearby and easily accessible by interstate, the Arctic regions pegged for drilling are nearly inaccessible. The nearest Coast Guard station is a thousand miles away on Kodiak Island. The nearest oil boom depot is 2,000 miles away in Seattle. There are no industrial ports and no way of offloading equipment from land to water. Boats can access the region, but only seasonally, as much of it is iced over the rest of the year. Even icebreaking ships cannot reach the area in the dead of winter.

If an oil geyser like the one in the Gulf were to erupt in the Arctic in the fall, it would gush uncontained until the following summer when the ice cover thawed. And even then no technology exists for cleaning up oil effectively in icy water. Oil dispersants wouldn’t work in the Arctic because the icy water doesn’t sustain the microorganisms that consume the oil particles. Crude would continue to spew under countless square miles of dense ice, creating a circumpolar event that could annihilate the Arctic ecosystems of many countries, including Canada, Russia, Scandinavia, and Greenland.

Environmentalists are outraged that the MMS continues to approve leases that put our most vulnerable ecosystems at risk.

“These new leases are based on the same fundamentally flawed and patently illegal environmental analyses used to greenlight Deepwater Horizon,” says Mike Senatore of Defenders of Wildlife, which filed suit against MMS in June to block the expansion of drilling. “This agency is at the epicenter of the worst environmental disaster in history, and yet it’s still going about business as usual.”

Sylvia Earle, the former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Rolling Stone that “Drilling in the Arctic should make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. There are values there that transcend the value of any fossil fuel we can extract — irreplaceable ecosystems that we don’t know how to put together again. There are some places you should not drill, period.”