The U.S. Interior Department has approved a plan by Hilcorp Energy, to drill for oil in the Beaufort Sea, east of Prudhoe Bay in Alaska.
In the Liberty Project, Hilcorp aims to build a 24-acre gravel island in shallow waters about five miles from shore and drill for oil from there, and carry the oil with a pipeline buried beneath the ocean floor.
“We consider Hilcorp’s plan to represent a relatively conservative, time-tested approach toward offshore oil and gas development,” Joe Balash, Interior Department’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said in an announcement . “BOEM used a rigorous evaluation process based on the best and most recent science available to evaluate the safety and environmental impacts of the Liberty Project. Using input from North Slope communities, tribal organizations and the public, we have developed a robust set of environmental mitigation measures and safety practices that will be applied to this project.”
Hilcorp’s Senior Vice President for Alaska David Wilkins noted in a presentation last month in Anchorage, that similar offshore oil developments are already built and operating in the Arctic; the difference is that they are in state waters, not federal.
“This will be the fifth island that has safely and responsibly developed resources offshore in the Beaufort Sea,” Wilkins said.
“If granted final approvals, the Liberty Project will provide decades of responsible resource development and strengthen the energy future of Alaska and the United States,” Wilkins said.
According to Hilcorp, the Liberty Project will produce about 60,000 barrels of oil per day and will operate for 15 to 20 years. The project is planned to start up in the early 2020s.
Hilcorp has for now avoided the same opposition that Shell faced with its effort in Arctic federal waters, but environmental groups have sent the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management comment letters, detailing a long list of concerns about the Liberty Project.
They criticized the agency’s analysis of the risk of an oil spill and Hilcorp’s track record — Hillcorp has gotten fines from the state several times for safety violations in recent years.
And nine months before the discovery, the US Coast Guard was dispatched to investigate a Hilcorp oil leak from an abandoned well in the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard reported ”estimated 840 gallons of crude oil in the water,”
EarthJustice associate attorney Jeremy Lieb has stated that Liberty wouldn’t be the first project of its kind in Arctic waters, adding “but I don’t think the fact that an accident hasn’t happened yet at sites in state waters is in any way dispositive of the fact that there’s no risk of a spill here,” Lieb said.
Lieb did not say if environmental groups are definitely planning on suing the federal government to halt Liberty. He said they still need time to look at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s final decision to see if it’s legally vulnerable.
Before the project moves ahead, Hilcorp still needs to receive additional approvals, from agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.