Monday, March 13, 2006

Alaska's North Slope Sees Largest Oil Spill in History

Alaska officials said on Friday that a broken pipeline at the Prudhoe Bay oil fields on Alaska's North Slope spilled up to 267,000 gallons (6,357 barrels) of crude oil, making it the largest oil spill ever recorded on the state's North Slope, according to a Reuters report.

At least 201,000 gallons (4,785 barrels) spilled at Prudhoe Bay, the largest U.S. oil field, according to officals at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The oil spill covered over 1.9 acres of snowy tundra and the extent of the environmental impact remains unknown, according to Leslie Pearson, on-scene coordinator for the DEC.

The spill was discovered on March 2 on the west side of Prudhoe Bay by a worker for field operator BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., Reuters reports.

According to the report, officials expect cleanup efforts to take four to six weeks. So far, 52,920 gallons (1,260 barrels) of oil had been recovered, according to a news release issued by a state, federal and BP joint emergency response team.

The Reuters report continues:

"Although it is a significant spill and it is a large volume, the footprint, being just under two acres, is small," said Pearson.

Alaska's biggest oil spill was the 11 million-gallon Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989. Crude oil from the grounded Exxon tanker spread to 1,300 miles of coastline, including sites in the Chugach National Forest and in three national park units.

The Prudhoe Bay spill forced BP to shut down operations at a gathering center, a facility that separates pumped oil from water and natural gas, and at the approximately 230 wells that feed into it.

The shutdown caused BP to lose about 100,000 barrels of daily production, although the company has been able to divert production of about 5,000 of those barrels through a different pipeline, BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said.

The Prudhoe Bay field normally produces about 470,000 barrels a day, a little more than half of all North Slope oil output. Other major owners of the field unit are ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil.

"Knowing the impact area and getting it cleaned up, to us, is in a sense the most important thing," said Beaudo, who added that restarting production is less of a priority.

Officials suspect corrosion created a quarter-inch hole in the transit line and the ensuing leak, even though BP said the area of the breach was not registered as vulnerable as part of the company's corrosion-monitoring program.

Opponents of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil development said the Prudhoe Bay spill weakens claims that drilling and other operations could be conducted safely.

"By nature, the oil industry is a messy business," said Luci Beach, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, a group of Athabascan Indians opposed to oil development in the refuge.

Beach, who was in Washington, D.C., to campaign against Congressional attempts to allow drilling in the refuge, said she often encounters arguments that modern oil-field technology has eliminated environmental risks.

"Look at this huge spill. It kind of takes the air out of that argument," she said.

While an oil spill on water, like the Exxon Valdez, is much worse than an oil spill on land - afterall, oil on water spreads out quickly like, well, oil on water - a spill like this is not without its impacts. As the end of the report points out, events like this kind of provide the perfect counter argument to claims by drilling advocates that opening up ANWR to oil exploration will have a minimal environmental footprint. The pipeline and drilling infrastructure will only impact a small area of the land and modern drilling techniques prevent harmful oil spills, they say.

Well, this oil spill sure seems to contradict the latter part of that claim. This seemed to happend rather unexpectedly to BP whose efforts to spot and avoid potential spills caused by pipeline corrosion completely failed to find and prevent this spill, the largest in North Slope history. Somehow that doesn't make me too confident that drilling in ANWR can takeplace without similar environmental damage.


[A hat tip to Treehugger]

1 comment:

sf said...

I realize this happened ten months ago, but chanced across this post and was struck by the...how does one put this diplomatically? Faux-apocalyptic tenor of it?

The post is titled "Alaska's North Slope sees largest oil spill in history." And yes, 201,000 gallons is larger than the Exxon Valdez. But in terms of actual impact, you simply cannot rationally compare a two-acre spill with oil strewn over 1,300 *miles* of coastline.

Yes, oil is messy stuff, but let's try to keep some sense of perspective, eh? A balanced story would have said something like "Quick action limits large spill to two acres."

But in any case, I agree with our host that we need to start planning for ways to operate transportation when oil becomes much more expensive.