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."
But despite such warning signs, BP's project has the blessing of Minerals Management Service — the government agency that oversees offshore drilling. Last year, one month after it gave BP the go-ahead to drill in the Gulf, MMS bestowed a leadership award on the company in recognition of Liberty's "visionary approach" to drilling. While regulators must still approve the final paperwork for the project, MMS tells Rolling Stone that it considers Liberty safe. It says that BP has the capacity to respond to a worst-case discharge of 20,000 barrels a day, and adds that the "island has been designed to contain surface liquids within the footprint of the island." Environmentalists scoff at the idea that any spill would be limited to Liberty's gravelly isle. "If the thing blew," says Clusen, "the oil would be falling into the water."
The Obama administration has been warned by its own scientists that drilling in the Arctic poses a grave risk to the environment. Last September, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration urged the president to halt future leases in the Arctic, warning that federal regulators operating on Bush-era guidelines had "greatly understated" the risks of drilling. Both industry and government, the scientists added, displayed a "lack of preparedness for Arctic spill responses" and had failed to "fully evaluate the potential impacts of worst-case scenarios."
That's putting it mildly. Shell has received all the environmental permits it needs to drill five exploratory wells in the Arctic — but in light of the BP disaster in the Gulf, the documents read like a sick joke. According to the Environmental Assessment that Interior conducted last December on Shell's drilling plan, "A very large spill from a well-control incident is not a reasonably foreseeable event, and therefore, this EA does not analyze the impacts of such a worst-case scenario." The response plan that Shell put together in case of a disaster is equally disturbing: The oil giant says it is only prepared to respond to a spill of 5,500 barrels a day — a fraction of the 60,000 barrels currently estimated to be pouring into the Gulf. Shell, the eighth-largest corporation in the world, has a disturbing record when it comes to the environment: Its operations in Nigeria spilled at least 100,000 barrels of crude last year alone.
A spokesman for the Interior Department assures Rolling Stone that the final paperwork for Shell's drilling in the Arctic won't be considered until next January, giving the department time to "gather additional scientific information about resources, risks and environmental sensitivities" in the region. But the spokesman concedes that federal regulators have made no move to revise the faulty environmental assessments upon which Shell's permits were originally approved. That process, experts say, would have to be well under way by now if Interior officials want to have a meaningful assessment in hand by the time the suspension expires.
Experts also warn that a spill in the Arctic would be far worse than the disaster currently unfolding in the Gulf, where experienced contractors and relief equipment are close at hand. By contrast, the sites in the Arctic where Shell plans to drill are devilishly remote. The closest Coast Guard station is on Kodiak Island, some 1,000 miles away. The nearest cache of boom to help contain a spill is in Seattle — a distance of 2,000 miles. There are only two small airports in the region, and even if relief supplies could somehow be airlifted to the tundra, there are no industrial ports to offload equipment into the water. Relief equipment can realistically be brought to the region only by boat — and then only seasonally. The Arctic is encased in ice for more than half the year, and even icebreakers can't assure access in the dark of winter. "If it's this hard to clean this up in the relatively benign conditions of the Gulf of Mexico," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse cautioned Salazar at a hearing after the BP spill, "good luck trying to implement this sort of a cleanup in the Arctic."
Shell, in fact, has never conducted an offshore-response drill in the Chukchi Sea. Perhaps that's because there's no proven technology for cleaning up oil in icy water, which can render skimming boats useless — much less to cope with a gusher under the ice. In the worst-case scenario, according to marine scientists, a blowout that takes place in the fall, when the seas are freezing over, could flow unabated until relief wells could be drilled the following summer. In the interim, oil could spread under the sea ice, marring the coastlines of Russia and Canada, and possibly reaching as far as Norway and Greenland. "It could realistically be a circumpolar event," says Steiner.
Such a disaster would threaten the Arctic's bountiful marine life, including polar bears, walruses, seals and migratory seabirds from every continent but Europe, to say nothing of gray whales and the endangered bowhead whale, on whose continued survival the native hunting communities along the Arctic coast depend. "It would wipe out the indigenous cultures and their subsistence lifestyle," says Clusen. And because the Arctic's frigid waters don't support the bounty of micro-organisms that scientists are counting on to help break down oil in the Gulf, a massive spill may prove almost impossible to clean up. "If you put a million barrels of oil in the Arctic Ocean," warns Steiner, "it would be there for decades."
In its recent appeals to government regulators, Shell has claimed that, because it would be drilling in shallow waters of roughly 150 feet, its operations in the Arctic would be safer than BP's well in the Gulf, which ruptured 5,000 feet below the surface. But the government's own data shows that most blowouts occur in shallow water. And the 10-week-long gusher that followed the blowout of a rig last fall in shallow waters off the coast of Australia is proof that catastrophe can strike at any depth.
"Drilling in the Arctic should make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck," says Sylvia Earle, the former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "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."
The Arctic, it turns out, is not the only place that the Obama administration is poised to give oil companies a new lease on life. In another indication that the president's six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling may be nothing but a stalling tactic, MMS has continued to accept bids on drilling tracts in the Gulf. Indeed, since President Obama announced his halt to deep-water drilling on May 27th, MMS has approved bids on at least 96 tracts in deep water. Two of the bids are from BP — and one is in the same undersea canyon where the company's gusher continues to foul the Gulf.
The White House contends that MMS is simply "finalizing paperwork" from bids submitted prior to the disaster. But environmentalists are aghast. "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."
This article appears in RS 1108/1109 from July 8-22, 2010, on newsstands Friday, June 25.