Some lessons from Alaska offshore oil exploration

Mar 08, 2002 01:00 AM

As the BC government prepares to move forward with offshore oil and gas exploration, Alaska's experience provides reasons for both caution and reassurance. Offshore platforms have been operating in the waters of Cook Inlet since the mid-1960s, and the Environmental Protection Agency says there is no evidence the industry has harmed air quality in Cook Inlet or contaminated marine life and sediments.
"[The evidence] doesn't support the contention that the platforms have done much harm," confirms Ted Rockwell, a federal environmental scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency. However, the state's oil platforms and aging infrastructure are coming under increasing scrutiny as an environmental liability.
Old, corroding pipelines under the inlet and on land-based operations on the Kenai Peninsula have generated calls for action ranging from an independent assessment of the pipelines' status to their outright replacement or elimination. In the most recent case, on Jan. 29, 1,500 litres ofwater containing eight-per-cent crude oil escaped through a hole in a corroded pipeline at Swanson River.

Two other unrelated incidents occurred July 31, 2001: Oil from an offshore platform's abandoned pipeline created a sheen 2.5 km long; and a corroded pipeline in Captain Cook State Park required the removal of 2,400 cm of contaminated soil and gravel, 560,000 litres of contaminated water, and 5,000 litres of fuel.
The Alaskan experience suggests that the economic benefits of offshore oil must be weighed against the risks -- starting with the impact of seismic exploration on marine life and extending to pollution, not just from the platforms, but pipelines, shipping and shore-based facilities.
And while the most dramatic impact -- blowouts on platforms -- are far and few between, industry concedes the risk is always there. "You're on a bomb that could go off at any time," confirms Michael Dimmick, production foreman on Unocal's Granite Point Platform in Cook Inlet. "You're aware of it."

The BCgovernment is still pondering the release of two reports on the ramifications of lifting a provincial moratorium on offshore oil and gas exploration -- one by a scientific panel headed by former University of Victoria president David Strong, the other by northern Liberal MLAs.
But whatever the province decides, offshore exploration cannot proceed until the federal government lifts its own moratorium, until industry decides that the oil and gas reserves warrant the investment, and until aboriginal rights are considered, including a Haida legal claim to the Queen Charlotte Islands and its surrounding waters.
The oil industry in Cook Inlet is left largely to police itself, says Jeff Mach, oil and gas coordinator for Alaska's department of environmental conservation. "We expect them [industry] to keep the oil in the pipe," says Mach. "It's up to them to make the determination... to weigh the cost of repairs versus continuing to operate."

The industry responds with leak-detection systems, including increasingly sophisticated "smart pigs," plastic and steel devices that resemble weight-lifting barbells that are sent through the pipelines to monitor for weak points. To assuage other safety concerns, Tesoro Alaska now employs two double-hulled tankers to transport crude oil to its Kenai Peninsula refinery.
But it does so without the tug escorts and state-of-the-art vessel traffic system enjoyed in Prince William Sound, site of the Exxon Valdez supertanker spill of 1989. At 40 mm litres of crude oil, the Exxon Valdez spill raised the bar for marine disasters, erasing peoples' memory of a 400,000-litre oil spill in Cook Inlet during the grounding of the tanker Glacier Bay in July 1987.

Accidental oil spills are one matter, legally permitted discharges are another. These include water-based muds and cuttings from the drilling process, as well as oily waters from the subsea formations that have been treated to low levels of toxicity Such discharges from offshore platforms to a coastal zone are unique toCook Inlet, a federal economic concession to the aging industry. A new platform built in 2000 by Forest Oil must reinject its wastes into undersea formations.
But to the dismay of oil detractors, neither the spills nor the discharges has proven to have a lasting environment impact. Still, scientist Ted Rockwell is curious about the fate of hydrocarbons making their way into Cook Inlet.
"There is one unanswered question," he confirms from his subterranean federal office. "If we can't find it, where does it go?"

However, to fishing advocates such as Bob Shavelson, of the Cook Inlet Keeper environmental group, British Columbians should not view the inlet as a squeaky-clean example of offshore oil, noting the rich economic fruits come with environmental consequences.
"I've spoken to folks in BC and I understand there are efforts to hold up Cook Inlet... an example of how to do offshore oil and gas development right. I'd say, 'If this is the yardstick you're using, then you're not holding yourself up to a very high standard.'"

Source: Vancouver Sun
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