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.
"You got a 40 mph wind out there, and that ice decides to shift. It's going to take that pipe with it whether or not you agree to it, whether or not your studies say it won't happen," Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, a health clinic worker from Nuiqsut, said at a recent public hearing. "When that oil starts spilling upon those beaches and the animals leave the area, we'll be the ones trying to clean it up. Because people from elsewhere won't be able to tolerate this environment."
"There's just no equipment that I'm aware of that would be able to address a major oil spill in ice conditions. And of course there is no manpower here, being six miles out," added Bill Tegoseak, environmental officer for the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope.
"We don't have a McDonald's down the street, nor do we have supermarkets to run to in the event our subsistence resources are lost to an oil spill," Tegoseak said. "I'm not against onshore development. . . . But when you endanger the villages that depend on the bowhead whale, the polar bear, the seal, the walrus, and don't have a major cleanup plan, then you've got problems."
The Inupiat mayor of the North Slope borough--suspicious of past oil development--has gone on record in favor of the Northstar project. So have most other native government and corporation officials, who stand to realize substantial royalties and hundreds of jobs from offshore oil. They said state and federal environmental oversight has provided sufficient safeguards against accidents.
Sophisticated Spill Prevention
When the original environmental impact statement predicted a 24% chance of a major spill--and said that a minor leak could go undetected under the ice for 30 days or more--BP Amoco officials set out to design a pipeline with the most sophisticated spill prevention and leak detection systems ever.
The company said it would bury the pipeline 5 to 9 feet under the ocean floor, minimizing the chance that it could be gouged by shifting ice. Then it designed the 6-mile undersea portion to run as a single unit with no valves, where breaches happen most often.
The pipeline itself is a 10-inch diameter of .594-inch steel, ultrasonically tested and flexible enough to bend up to 70 degrees without rupturing. Three separate detection systems are able to perceive the smallest of leaks. "If we lose up to 100 barrels a day, the system will alarm," said BP Amoco's Greg Mattson. The result, according to the company, is an annual 1-in-10,000 (or .01%) risk of a major spill over the 16-year life of the project. (The final environmental impact statement estimates the risk at 1.6% to 2.4%).
But critics say any risk in so fragile an environment is too great. "We really don't have a way to clean up an oil spill for a lot of the year in the Arctic," said Sara Callaghan, the Sierra Club's Arctic coordinator.
For once, the wind isn't blowing. It's been 25 below for days, with the wind-chill factor plummeting to 60 below or more. The snowmobiles set out from the airport at Deadhorse with two new arrivals: Soren Wuerth, an environmental and community activist from Anchorage, and Anna Young, a former fisherwoman from Seward.
Both have volunteered to mount a civil disobedience action on behalf of Greenpeace, protesting Northstar's potential risk to the marine environment and its contribution--like any new fossil fuel development--to global warming.
It is slow going across the rough ice: 2 1/2 hours from shore, with a wary eye cast for polar bears, who rival the cold as the greatest threat to human life on this forlorn seascape. "Out on the pack ice is where they live, and they regard humans as a food source," a North Slope Borough police officer tells Wuerth and Young.
Once clear of the smokestacks and drilling rigs of the Prudhoe Bay complex, there is only the white ice and the gray sky in every direction--and looming in the distance, the cranes and pilings and giant backhoes of Northstar.
Greenpeace's Ice Camp Sirius--two wind turbine-powered Quonset huts--stands about two miles away, a technological outpost in the wilderness. Satellite phones and cellular phones connect to news organizations around the world. Three laptop computers transmit video and still photos of protest actions. A bank of radios and scanners sits on one wall. Solar panels provide backup power to the 760-amp battery, which operates lights and heaters. The one thing the camp lacks is plumbing.
Peter Morris, an Australian who was Kosovo coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) during last spring's NATO bombing campaign, runs the computer and wind turbine systems. Henk Haazen, a Dutch-born New Zealander and veteran of Greenpeace's Antarctic anti-oil campaign, built the camp and coordinates supplies. Christian Aslund, a Swedish videographer, and Nick Cobbing, a British photographer, complete the hired crew. Overseeing the camp is Greenpeace's Melanie Duchin.
On this day, she is sending out news that some protesters have been arrested after making a snowmobile run at one of the backhoes digging the pipeline trench. Piloted by Earth First co-founder Mike Roselle, the snowmobile flew into the air over a berm and its occupants scrambled onto the backhoe before being wrestled to the ground by BP Amoco security.
The significance, Duchin says, is that BP Amoco shareholders will be voting the next day on a resolution that would require the oil company to abandon Northstar, halt attempts to expand oil operations into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and redirect oil funds into development of solar energy.
"We're here because we wanted to go to the source of the problem," she said. "Bearing witness is an old Quaker tradition: If somebody's about to stick their hand in the cookie jar, if somebody's watching, maybe they won't do it."
"Well, we'll slow them down tomorrow for a little while," says Young, a 54-year-old grandmother of four who has never been arrested before.
That night, gathered around the supper table, Young and Wuerth are shown the banner they will carry onto the Northstar site. "Global warming starts here," it says, with a BP Amoco logo in the middle. The plan is for Young and Wuerth to walk right up to the construction site, with Aslund and Cobbing filming them, until they are arrested.
"I really appreciate you guys coming," Haazen says.
"I think there's a lot of Alaskans that would have," replies Young, who had to stop fishing in Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill decimated the fishing stocks. "A lot of them are really upset with the oil--fed up."
The sun slips up over the ice, and Duchin, who's been on night watch for polar bears, storms into the sleeping tent.
"Wake up people. I've got some good news for you: 14% yes vote on the resolution, representing 1.5 billion shares. That's billion with a B. Can you believe it?" The activists had only expected to get 1% to 2%.
After a quick breakfast, the crew piles onto snowmobiles and heads for the Northstar site. There, 750,000 cubic yards of gravel have already been laid, forming the heart of the island. A large backhoe is digging the remainder of the trench, and a line of smaller vehicles is laying the pipeline in place.
In the numbing cold, Wuerth and Young make their way across the ice, holding the banner aloft. Police quickly handcuff them and load them onto a bus. Duchin does stand-ups in front of the camera, proclaiming victory on the BP Amoco shareholder vote.
Then they go back to start breaking camp. And the backhoe moves up another 20 feet, churning a new hole in the sea floor.
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Arctic Undersea Oil Pipeline
The world's first undersea oil pipeline is being constructed in Alaska's Beaufort Sea. BP Amoco's $686-million Northstar project will use the 17-mile pipeline to connect manmade Northstar Island to the mainland trans-Alaska pipeline. An estimated 145 million barrels of oil may be extracted, adding to the North Slope's existing system of pipelines, drilling pads, wells and pumping stations.