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ANCHORAGE - After failing to satisfy state and federal officials in three recent spill cleanup drills, BP Exploration (Alaska) could see the drilling season limited seriously at its new offshore Northstar oilfield.
Until BP finds a way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic's broken ice during spring and fall, drilling at Northstar and four other coastal fields is restricted to winter. The new fields are being developed to slow the drop in North Slope oil production.
The most recent problems came early last week when new oil skimmers "simply did not work" in the icy waters around the field, said Robert Watkins of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
But there may be other ways to meet spill response requirements, said Ronnie Chappell, a spokesman for BP.
"The inability of booms and skimmers to work in slush ice doesn't mean we don't have containment methods. There are effective techniques available, they just aren't these techniques," Chappell said.
At Northstar, a $700 million project to extract 175 million barrels of oil, the drilling restrictions could present a problem, but it probably won't be a major one, Chappell said. He doesn't see a quick fix to spill containment in the Beaufort Sea. But he says the company is "optimistic that working with the state, we will come up with a solution that will allow lifting of the drilling restrictions now in place for all or a part of the open-water or broken-ice periods."
"With this project, things always look great on paper but not good in the field," said Susan Harvey, the DEC's head of spill response.
Ned T. Arey Sr., a permitting official with the North Slope Planning Department in Barrow, said BP's optimism may not be enough.
"They think they can do it. But they are finding that in the ice there are limits," Arey said.
Environmental groups such as Greenpeace worry about the subsea pipeline connecting the field to shore and that BP has little ability to clean up a spill during broken ice conditions during fall and spring. That spill response criticism is getting increasingly difficult to quash.
Federal, state and North Slope officials granted BP permits to develop Northstar, but they included requirements that BP demonstrate its ability to clean up a spill in all ice conditions. The standards extend to all coastal fields, including Endicott, Point McIntyre and Niakuk.
The new regulations set a high standard, calling for BP to be ready to clean up a spill of tens of thousands of barrels. The biggest spill ever to escape BP facilities on the North Slope and reach the tundra is five barrels, Chappell said.
In a winter oil spill, oil companies could drive equipment onto the sea ice and clean up.
The problem during spring breakup and fall freeze is that ice clogs the water, making skimmers all but useless. Oil booms can be tough to use around large chunks of ice. Plus, the frigid water thickens crude oil into a viscous mud that is difficult to handle.
During three days of drills last week, skimmers did not work. Also, oil containment boom was too long to be easily deployed, said Watkins of the DEC.
State and federal officials, North Slope Borough representatives and BP personnel will meet later this fall to discuss the spill response options along the Arctic coast, she said.