BP Amoco, environmentalists face off over offshore arctic oil

Posted: Friday, March 24, 2000

ON THE ARCTIC OCEAN (AP) -- Truckload by truckload, BP Amoco is building the newest battleground in the long-running war between Big Oil and environmentalists.

BP is hauling tons of gravel six miles out onto the frozen Arctic Ocean to create an artificial island. The new real estate is to be used as a drilling platform for an offshore oil trove known as Northstar.

Meanwhile, just off the five-acre island's flank, activists from Greenpeace silently register their protest.

''Global warming starts here'' reads a banner rippling in a brisk northern wind, while a few yards away exhaust-belching bulldozers hustle to keep the island rising above a sea of brilliant white snow and ice.

A handful of Greenpeace agitators are so dead-set against Northstar that they have been living nearby in tents and huts for more than a month, enduring day after day in a featureless landscape where wind-chill temperatures dip to 80 degrees below zero.

They and other environmentalists see industry greedily trampling on the pristine Arctic Ocean and setting the stage for ecological disaster if Northstar crude somehow spills into the gin-clear water.

''The reason we're there is all about the need to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy,'' said Dan Ritzman, an Anchorage-based spokesman for Greenpeace. ''We intend to keep shining a light on Northstar as long as we can.''

BP has made it clear that the sentinels are unwelcome. Earlier this month three Greenpeace members, including Ritzman, were arrested for trespassing when they briefly set foot on the island. The three left the arctic as a bail condition, but three others soon replaced them.

''The heavyhanded reaction shows that they're concerned, that they're nervous about our message,'' Ritzman said.

BP says it doesn't understand all the fuss. It sees Northstar as a pioneering engineering effort that safely will produce nearly 200 million barrels of Alaska oil for an energy-hungry America. Peak production at Northstar is expected to be 65,000 barrels a day.

''I think we have convinced a lot of people that this is an environmentally sound project,'' said Peter Bryce, a Northstar pipeline engineer.

While environmentalists are fighting Northstar, BP has lined up plenty of local support. Alaska's pro-growth government is solidly behind the company, and because oil pays most of the state's bills and last year paid a $1,770-per-person dividend besides, most residents favor expansion of the state's oil patch to boost overall production, which has been in decline for years.

The $700 million Northstar project consists of the island and a pair of 17-mile steel pipelines running to the mainland, one for oil and the other for natural gas. For six of those miles, the heavy-gauge pipelines will be buried deep beneath the sea floor, making them the first of their kind in the arctic.

Environmental groups contend that laying a subsea pipeline in northern Alaska is risky business because coastal waters are shallow and freeze all the way to the bottom in winter. Pressure moves the massive ice pack, which plows into the soft sea bed -- a process known as ''gouging'' -- and easily could chew up an undersea pipeline in its path.

But BP says its design plans take gouging into account. The company maintains that burying the pipe 6 to 9 feet deep would keep it out of harm's way even under the worst gouging conditions.

''I'm confident we have a safe pipeline here,'' Bryce said. ''I will sleep at night.''

Also figuring into the Northstar equation are the 6,000 Inupiat Eskimos who live along Alaska's northern edge.

For thousands of years, Inupiat hunters have headed out into the Arctic Ocean in sealskin boats to pursue bowhead whales during the animals' spring and fall migrations. Under international treaty, the Inupiat are allowed to kill a small number of bowheads each year for food.

The whaling communities long have fought offshore oil development, fearing that drilling noise could chase away the bowheads. And then there's the specter of a spill.

''There's no confidence that a large oil spill in the arctic can be cleaned up,'' said Maggie Ahmaogak, executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission in Barrow. ''We don't want another Exxon Valdez.''

An arctic spill could be tough to contend with, especially if it occurred in the spring or fall. During those seasons the sea is filled with ice chunks that would hamper response vessels and make skimming difficult.

Royal Dutch Shell and Amerada Hess bought the original Northstar leases in 1979 and drilled five exploration wells, but stopped short of production. BP Amoco bought the field in 1995.

The original leases called for the state to receive 89 percent of the profits from Northstar, but BP Amoco claimed the field wasn't worth developing under those terms. The company and Gov. Tony Knowles made a controversial deal in 1996 that traded the state's profit share for a higher royalty rate and a commitment to Alaska hire.

The project was halted for nearly a year by a lawsuit filed by several Anchorage residents who argued that BP was given a sweetheart deal. The Supreme Court sided with the state in a 1998 decision.

BP Amoco is now pushing hard to have Northstar producing by late next year. On a day in early March, with wind-chills at 70 below, the construction assembly line was humming.

At one-minute intervals, huge dumptrucks rumbled across the ice to deliver gravel to the island builders, and then deadheaded back to a nearby pit for another load.

A mile away, the pipeline was being prepared for burial in an equipment-intensive process.

One machine cut a narrow channel in the thick sea ice, another lifted the ice out in huge slabs and still another carted it away. A tall backhoe followed to dig a deep trench in the sea floor, while a battery of welders hustled to stitch together 40-foot lengths of pipe laid out on the ice.

The welders work in a row of small shacks that protect them from wind and cold. When one finishes a seam, a small crane lifts his shack and moves it to the front of the line, where the next weld awaits the torch.

''It's real teamwork -- everybody who is involved has to do his or her job,'' Bryce said. ''It's almost like a moving factory on the ice.''



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