Sunday, July 18, 2010

North Pole Global Refuge (NPGR)

(Left: BP-built Endicott Island, in Alaska's Beaufort Sea, site of the "Liberty Project", an example of what the petroleum industry terms a low-impact "small footprint". Flaring of natural gas is just one of the "natural features" of the Arctic contributing to Global Warming.)

Fresh from its stellar performance in the Gulf of Mexico, BP is preparing to commence drilling at its "Liberty" platform off the Alaska's North Coast. The incompetence, criminal disregard, hubris and contempt that BP demonstrated in addressing the Deepwater Horizon blowout should raise alarms wherever the oil industry is operating, and especially in remote wilderness environments.

According to a recent New York Times article (see BP Is Pursuing Alaska Drilling Some Call Risky)
Because of its location on the artificial island, (the Liberty Project) has been exempted from the moratorium on offshore drilling.

But about three miles off the coast of Alaska, BP is moving ahead with a controversial and potentially record-setting project to drill two miles under the sea and then six to eight miles horizontally to reach what is believed to be a 100-million-barrel reservoir of oil under federal waters.

All other new projects in the Arctic have been halted by the Obama administration’s moratorium on offshore drilling, including more traditional projects like Shell Oil’s plans to drill three wells in the Chukchi Sea and two in the Beaufort.

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.

The project has already received its state and federal environmental permits, but BP has yet to file its final application to federal regulators to begin drilling, which it expects to start in the fall.

Some scientists and environmentalists say that other factors have helped keep the project moving forward.

Rather than conducting their own independent analysis, federal regulators, in a break from usual practice, allowed BP in 2007 to write its own environmental review for the project as well as its own consultation documents relating to the Endangered Species Act, according to two scientists from the Alaska office of the federal Mineral Management Service that oversees drilling.

The environmental assessment was taken away from the agency’s unit that typically handles such reviews, and put in the hands of a different division that was more pro-drilling, said the scientists, who discussed the process because they remained opposed to how it was handled.

“The whole process for approving Liberty was bizarre,” one of the federal scientists said.
The article goes on to say
Extended-reach drilling has advantages. Drilling at an angle might be less threatening to sensitive habitats. But engineers say that this type of drilling is riskier and more complicated than traditional drilling because it is relatively new and gas kicks are more frequent and tougher to detect.

And because of the distance and angles involved, drilling requires far more powerful machinery, putting extra pressure on pipes and well casings.
Here you can view the BP-authored Material Management Services: Liberty Project Environmental Impact Analysis.

As some interested parties view the melting of Arctic sea ice as heralding an unexpected opportunity to exploit this formerly inaccessible "resource" (as exploit we must!), it is time to create an international ecological preserve, a North Pole Global Refuge (NPGR) that restricts development, industrialization and exploitation of the Arctic Ocean and adjacent coastlines. The notion of creating a refuge expands upon measures already undertaken by the United States and Canada in establishing a joint Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Writing in the New York Times on March 28, 2009, Scott Borgerson ("visiting fellow for ocean governance at the Council on Foreign Relations") and Caitlyn Antrim (executive director of the Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans) propose such a preserve:
The Arctic’s pristine waters are a leading indicator, and an important regulator, of global climate health. They are the beginning and the end of the so-called great ocean conveyor, the mighty current that connects all the world’s oceans. And they are home to a vibrant ecosystem that supports whales, polar bears and terns.
But their almost laughable vision suggests a quaint-sounding "international marine park" surrounding the North Pole above the 88th parallel.  (Prudhoe Bay, center of "North Slope" operations along the Arctic Ocean, is just above the 70th parallel.) Such a "scientific research park" would protect perhaps 2% of the Arctic Ocean from exploitation. In contrast, the Antarctic Treaty System governs all land and ice shelves south of the 60th parallel.

America, they write has
a vested interest in the peaceful development of the Arctic as a region. As citizens of a shared earth, we also have a stake in the greater good that can come from exploring the depths of the fastest warming part of the planet.

American leadership on a polar park would send a clear message that we are attuned to the climate crisis.
While visiting Prudhoe Bay in 2005, one of the features that struck me most (besides the obvious industrial complexes), was the brown haze that hung over the Arctic Ocean. Increasingly, we are dumping toxic wastes into the Arctic atmosphere, soil and water. This in an environment far less able to absorb, convert and mitigate the impacts of this damage.

According to the Times article

“The overall Liberty Project has been planned and designed to minimize adverse effects to biological resources,” BP wrote in 2007 in the development proposal to federal regulators. “Impacts to wetlands have been significantly reduced including shoreline and tundra habitat for birds and caribou.”
Since the 1990s, our now-notorious Materials Management Services has been conducting research on how to “respond to oil spills in ice infested waters”. (The methods include mechanical skimming, burning in place and use of chemical dispersants and “herders” – all benign inputs into the delicate Arctic ecosystem, I’m sure.)

The most effective solution so far, burning oil in situ, is only effective under specific conditions.

Near the end of their report, MMS cites concerns about the noise caused by seismic exploration ships and drilling operations such as Liberty – which impact marine life. Of course, all they offer is more research into mitigation of these negative impacts. Meanwhile, the industrialization proceeds…

Like other stuff, spills happen. They're inevitable. The Ixtoc blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979. The Exxon Valdez in 1989. Iraq's intentional destruction of Kuwaiti oilfields in 1991. The Prestige oil tanker spill off Spain in 2002. The continued despoiling of Nigeria's Niger Delta. Deepwater Horizon in 2010. These are just a few of the big ones that have made headlines.

In 2006, BP was fined for a large on-shore oil spill at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska's tundra. Then there was BP's Texas City refinery disaster in 2005.

The Exxon Valdez disaster occurred in the relatively-mild Prince William Sound. In the event of an at-sea oil blowout in the Arctic, who will mobilize forces to mop up oil and restore the environment - in the middle of Arctic Night? And at what cost?

For decades, the oil industry has fought to literally undermine ANWR and exploit its significant potential. It is fascinating to observe the suicidal drive to extract and consume the earth's oil and gas resources with absolutely no regard to future generations. It is simply stunning in its stupidity. Oil companies and other profit-seeking enterprises fail to understand: you minimize the environmental impact by leaving pristine wilderness alone.

As we watch the pitiful efforts of Tyvek-clad clean-up crews walk Gulf beaches picking up individual globs of oil and depositing them in petroleum-based plastic bags, we fail to draw the connections. Responsibility for such scenes rests largely with America, the world's leading consumer, and compels us to reduce our dependence upon ever-dwindling nonrenewable resources. We may not lead the revolution, but without our committed involvement, it cannot possibly succeed.

September 2 update: Greenpeace attempts to disrupt British-owned Cairn Energy's Arctic drilling off Greenland.

Related story: The Arctic Oil Rush

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