Big oil, environmentalists face off over offshore arctic pipeline

Posted: Monday, March 27, 2000

ON THE ARCTIC OCEAN - 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 Anchoragebased 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.

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.

BP is now pushing hard to have Northstar producing by late next year.

While environmentalists are fighting Northstar, BP has lined up plenty of local support. Alaska's pro-growth government is solidly behind the company, and 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 heavygauge 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.

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 to pursue bowhead whales during the animals' spring and fall migrations.

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.''

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