BEAUFORT SEA, Alaska — Six miles out on the polar ice pack--rising out of the silent, frozen sea--stands a 5-acre island and an army of backhoes gouging a massive trench into the ocean floor. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, workers race to complete the first undersea oil pipeline ever attempted in the formidable moonscape of the Arctic Ocean.
Delay a few weeks and the ice supporting the heavy cranes will give way to the spring thaw. Hurry and the pipeline won't get buried properly. In this region of midwinter darkness and shifting ice, an oil spill could turn the fragile ocean into a dead sea.
This is America's last oil frontier. Until now, Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oil fields had been considered the end of the Earth. That was before Prudhoe's vast reserves began to dwindle, before technology redefined the limits of the possible. Now the boundary has shifted into this wilderness of water and ice, polar bears and bowhead whales, into which mankind always has ventured at his peril.
Offshore drilling in the American Arctic actually began more than a decade ago on Endicott Island near Prudhoe Bay. But those wells were drilled on what was essentially a near-shore peninsula, connected by causeway to the mainland. Two other offshore sites are pumped from land-based rigs using slant drilling technology.
But BP Amoco's $686-million Northstar project on man-made Seal island represents the first true attempt at offshore oil production in the Arctic.
Shell actually discovered oil at the site in 1983. But it wasn't until BP Amoco renegotiated its lease with the state--rendering the oil worth millions of dollars more in profits--and developed the sophisticated technology to build an undersea pipeline that the estimated 145 million barrels of oil became recoverable.
With Northstar's debut, dozens of other offshore finds become potentially exploitable, though there are doubts about how many of them can be put into economic production. Federal officials estimate there are between 1.38 billion and 1.66 billion barrels of oil under the silt and ice of the Beaufort Sea.
Drilling's Risk Factor
The definition of what is commercially viable has changed, BP Amoco spokesman Ronnie Chappell explained recently as 550 workers completed the first several miles of the six-mile undersea pipeline. Slant drilling technology has allowed vast oil reservoirs to be tapped with relatively small above-ground platforms, Chappell said. And roads built out of ice permit the operation of large armies of construction equipment during the winter months with minimal effect on the tundra or marine wildlife.
"In May or June, the only evidence that we have been there will be the newly constructed Northstar island and a new onshore pipeline that will disappear into the ground near the coast," he said.
Yet critics of offshore drilling in the Arctic--including the environmental group Greenpeace, which has maintained a protest camp on the ice since February--say an accident at Northstar would leave past oil-spill disasters looking gentle by comparison.
The food chain in this marine environment is devastatingly short: from the algae on the bottom of the ice to the fish to the seals to the polar bears--all could be erased overnight with a well blowout.
And then there is the matter of trying to clean up a spill in a sea that is frozen 10 months out of the year, with months of lingering winter darkness. Cleanup crews could be unable to deploy when winter storms send wind chill factors plunging to 150 below--and worse.
A test last fall to see whether BP Amoco and fellow North Slope operator Arco were prepared to clean up a spill in broken ice conditions found that one of the two barges couldn't be towed out of the dock, the second got stuck on shallow shoals and ice for 2 1/2 hours, and some of the skimmers could not be deployed.
"BP and Arco failed to demonstrate effective deployment of the most basic oil spill response operations," said Susan Harvey, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's oil spill chief, in an interview.
Effect on Native Peoples
BP Amoco officials said weather conditions changed in the days before the drill from broken ice, for which they were prepared, to solid ice. The shoal left their barge in just 7 feet of water, and ramming through the new ice made it impossible to cross the sandy bottom, said Bruce McKenzie, BP Amoco's oil spill expert. He said the company will deploy its barges in deeper water to prevent future mishaps.
But state officials say BP Amoco should have been prepared for icy conditions and shallow waters--they are the norm, not the exception.
The 6,000 Inupiat Eskimos who populate the villages of the northern coast are looking forward to the revenues Northstar will generate. But many who for generations have depended on whaling for subsistence fear they will be the ones left cleaning up any spills.