On June 15th, as BP's catastrophic spill in the Gulf neared its third month, President Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office. His administration, he assured the American people, would not let such a disaster happen again. He had put an indefinite hold on plans to open up new coastal areas, including Florida and Virginia, to offshore exploration. And he had frozen all new permits to drill in deep waters for six months, to give a blue-ribbon commission time to study the disaster. "We need better regulations, better safety standards and better enforcement," the president insisted.
But Obama's tough-guy act offers no guarantee that oil giants like BP won't be permitted to repeat the same mistakes that led to the nightmare in the Gulf. Indeed, top environmentalists warn, the suspension of drilling appears to be little more than a stalling tactic designed to let public anger over BP's spill subside before giving Big Oil the go-ahead to drill in an area that has long been off-limits: the Arctic Ocean. The administration has approved plans by both BP and Shell Oil to drill a total of 11 wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas above Alaska — waters far more remote and hostile than the Gulf. Shell's operations could proceed as soon as the president's suspension expires in January. And thanks to an odd twist in its rig design, BP's drilling in the Arctic is on track to get the green light as soon as this fall.
"The administration seems to want to avoid just shutting down these leases, even though they have every legal right to," says Charles Clusen, who leads the Alaska project for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "My fear is that people will start to forget about the Gulf spill, and the government will give Shell permits next year. We'll have had a pause, but not enough to assess the resources at risk or to develop technology that would be truly safe."
Ken Salazar, the Interior secretary whose staff allowed BP to drill in the Gulf based on pro-industry rules cooked up during the Bush years, has made no secret of his determination to push the "frontier" of oil drilling into the Arctic. The region's untapped waters are believed to hold as much as 27 billion barrels of oil — an amount that would rival some of the largest oil fields in the Middle East. "Everything I've heard internally, from sources within both the administration and industry, tells me that the administration is all over wanting these guys out in the Arctic Ocean," says Rick Steiner, a top marine scientist in Alaska who helped guide the response to the Exxon Valdez spill. "They're trying to solve this political problem with this Gulf spill in time to get these guys out in the Arctic next summer."
The White House dismisses any accusation of stalling as "not accurate," noting that Shell's permits are "on hold" until the president's commission finishes its work. But an administration spokesman admits that BP's plan — which uses an unproven approach to extracting undersea oil — is not covered by the six-month moratorium on offshore drilling. This fall, the company plans to begin drilling for oil near Prudhoe Bay via an oil rig it created by building an island — a glorified mound of gravel — three miles out in state waters. Because the island rig is connected to the mainland by a causeway, BP and Interior agree that the "onshore" facility is not subject to restrictions on "offshore" drilling. It's the same kind of legal fiction that states like Indiana use to permit gambling on "riverboat" casinos that are permanently docked on dry land.
Here's what BP has in store for the Arctic: First, the company will drill two miles beneath its tiny island, which it has christened "Liberty." Then, in an ingenious twist, it will drill sideways for another six to eight miles, until it reaches an offshore reservoir estimated to hold 105 million barrels of oil. This would be the longest "extended reach" well ever attempted, and the effort has required BP to push drilling technology beyond its proven limits. As the most powerful "land-based" oil rig ever built, Liberty requires special pipe to withstand the 105,000 foot-pounds of torque — the equivalent of 50 Mack truck engines — needed to turn the drill. "This is about as sexy as it gets," a top BP official boasted to reporters in 2008. BP, a repeat felon subject to record fines for its willful safety violations, calls the project "one of its biggest challenges to date" — an engineering task made even more dangerous by plans to operate year-round in what the company itself admits is "some of the harshest weather on Earth."
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