Book Review: Wild Profits

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The Arctic refuge may soon be in the hands of Big Oil. Will it drill clean?

Source of this article – Technology Review, April 2005

By Bryant Urstadt

Drill Kit
“Arctic Petroleum Development: Implications of Advances in Technology”
By Terry R. Twyman
Congressional Research Service, 2001

Central to the case for allowing exploration and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is the argument that new technologies will allow industry to get the oil out with minimal damage to the landscape and the wildlife. It is likely that this line of reasoning will be unfurled once again this year, when Republican representatives and sena­tors are expected to pick up their battering ram and renew the charge at the gates of what has become the prize possession of the environmental lobby. The last assault, in March 2003, lost in the Senate, with 52 senators voting to delete from a larger bill a provision that could have opened the refuge for drilling.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is that 79,000-square-­kilometer slice of pristine wilderness or barren wasteland, depending upon whom one asks, east of Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope, the largest operating oil field in North America. This is a frozen land so out of the way that it attracts a mere 2,500 tourists a year. By comparison, tiny Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island sees upwards of 65,000. Most of those who do visit ANWR come in the summer and head not for the plain, where the oil is, but 25 to 80 kilometers inland, where the mountains and the grizzlies are.

Temperatures range from 4 °C in the summer to well below –20 °C every day during the winter, with nary a wink of sun in December. The section of the refuge under dispute comprises 6,000 square kilometers of the coastal plain, and its fate has awaited a decision by Congress since it was set aside for further study in 1980. It is likely to hold four to twelve billion barrels of recoverable oil, which, though it may not feed the engines of America for even a year, is still a considerable amount. As one government report puts it so well, “The refuge is an area rich in fauna, flora, and commercial oil potential.”

Leading the charge again will be Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, who intends to add revenue from drilling leases, perhaps in the neighborhood of a couple billion, to the 2006 budget resolution. Drilling in the refuge isn’t really a budget issue, of course, but treating it as such prevents the possibility of a filibuster, to which budget resolutions are immune. If the reso­lution passes, leases would have to be granted, on the grounds that budget items must be reconciled with reality. Since the last elections thinned the ranks of senators opposed to drilling, many watchers expect such plans to move forward, despite what ought to be resistance from Democratic senators friendly to environmentalism, like Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

In 2001, as the debate about the refuge was making its near-yearly round through Washington and the media, members of Congress were provided with a report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) that described the extraction technologies proposed for use in the refuge. The report, “Arctic Petroleum Development: Implications of Advances in Technology,” is for the most part optimistic about the industry’s ability to extract oil while minimizing environmental damage. It was prepared by Terry R. Twyman, a geologist and now a staff member of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the interests of the oil and natural-gas industries.

The CRS describes itself as the “public-policy research arm” of Congress, charged with providing “nonpartisan, objective analysis and research on all legislative issues.” With a budget of some $80 million, the CRS maintains a huge staff of analysts who produce reports on any topic that might be debated, ranging from problems facing mortgage funder Fannie Mae to homeland security. Its reports are available only to members of Congress but often make their way to the public anyway, usually through the offices of legislators who feel they stand to benefit from them. “Arctic Petroleum Development,” for example, can be found on the website of the American Petroleum Institute.

If Terry Twyman, having taken a job at the API, might be considered pro-oil, that does nothing to diminish the importance of the report, which more or less represents the industry’s best case. A look at this case may help clarify the issues involved, for anyone who is following the debate or simply trying to understand what the refuge may look like to the visitor in 2015.

Ice Roads for Thumper Trucks

When a new oil field is opened, each phase of its development—exploration, drilling, and production—may damage the landscape, and in each of these phases, technological improvements promise to reduce or eliminate that damage.

More particularly, exploration, as it is currently conducted, consists of building a map of subsurface data and then drilling. Acquiring that data can be disruptive. The crews needed often number more than 100, and they move across the landscape in container trains pulled by bulldozers. Depth soundings are initiated by “vibroseis” vehicles, multiton articulated trucks lugging around vibrating plates. The plates generate low-frequency signals detectable by “geophones,” microphones placed in a grid over several kilometers in rows as close together as a hundred meters. Sometimes known as “thumper trucks,” these vibroseis vehicles do not produce the portable earthquakes that have agitated the environmental lobby in the past, but they are still sizable rigs that must cover kilometers of ground within a huge network of geophones, each of which must be laid by hand.

The damage caused by moving such equipment about can be minimized, Twyman argues, by exploring the refuge during the winter, when the terrain is frozen, and using Rolligons, vehicles with wide, balloon-style tires that would exert no more pressure on the tundra than a caribou hoof. (One industry photo even shows a Rolligon rolling over a smiling roughneck.) Coincident with the advent of the Rolligon has been the increasing use of ice roads on the North Slope. Ice roads are laid by Rolligons over the frozen tundra in mid-December and can support larger rigs pulling the mobile homes that house the crew. Drilling pads, too, can be built of ice. The oil industry contends that frozen roads and pads make the effects of exploration nearly invisible—all traces simply melt away—and believes that it can extend the drilling season further into spring by insulating the ice platforms.

Proponents also argue that the increasing accuracy of seismic data—which now yields 3-D rather than 2-D maps and can frequently be analyzed in real time by remote supercomputers—means that fewer soundings are necessary. The trade-off, however, is that although 3-D imaging reduces unnecessary drilling on what prove to be dry wells, it also requires the embedding of more microphones to obtain information in the first place. That, in turn, means more ground covered, with possibly harmful results. In any case, since the 1980s, advances in exploration technology have cut the number of wells needed to find oil in a field. This is good both for the oil industry’s bottom line and for the environment.

As the CRS report so baldly puts it, though, “there is no substitute, yet, for drilling,” both for testing the hypotheses of computer modeling and for bringing oil to the surface. No substitute, but the number of wells needed to verify exploration and complete extraction can hypothetically be reduced yet further through a variety of drilling techniques, including directional, “designer,” and multilateral drilling.

In directional drilling, extended-reach drills and bits angle out from a single platform to reach widely separated reservoirs of oil, covering a horizontal distance that can be two to five times the wells’ vertical depth. In the North Sea, such wells have reached eight kilometers in length. Designer wells use bits that can make tight turns to avoid obstacles while drilling. Multilateral wells lead several horizontal branches off a single master well. With 3-D modeling, designer and multilateral wells can reach smaller and smaller pockets of oil. Drill bits have also improved. Made with diamonds, they have become harder, making drilling faster and allowing shorter times on site.

Drill holes, too, have gotten slimmer, which means fewer “cuttings”—the waste material that surfaces during drilling—and fewer personnel needed to handle the equipment and the waste. Some of the associated equipment can be transported by air, which lessens the need for new roads. A related advance is the development of coiled-tubing drilling, first used on the North Slope in 1991. Where traditional rigs might be 60 meters tall and use nine-meter-long sections of interlocking pipe, coiled-tube drilling employs flexible pipe that can be carried on a spool (sometimes brought in by air), which means holes drilled faster with less equipment and a smaller drilling platform.

Much is made of the “footprint” of an extraction operation—the area it takes up—and Twyman reports that, overall, that has been much reduced as well. Drilling, for instance, produces enormous volumes of by-products, including water, natural gas trapped with the oil, and the cuttings fed up to the surface by a boring bit. These materials were formerly dumped into reserve pits six meters deep and around 4,000 square meters in area. Cuttings and water can now be pumped back into the ground. Furthermore, the water can now be separated from the oil while still underground, which alleviates the need for surface separation facilities. The general effect, industry contends, is smaller facilities manned by fewer men.

The Case against Drilling

Of all these technical advances, the environmental lobby, as might be expected, is skeptical. The Wilderness Society, for one, has published a report questioning pretty much every industry assertion about new drilling technology.

Environmentalists continue to doubt that Arctic exploration can be conducted with anything like minimal impact. Rolligons, they contend, are unlikely to work in the hilly terrain that characterizes much of the coastal plain; their low-impact tires simply will not propel them up a grade. Even ice roads, certainly the most elegant of industry solutions to environmental problems, are called into question. Environmental advocates point out that water is a limited resource in the Arctic refuge and is not, in any case, located close to likely oil fields. They also like to mention that global warming has dramatically shortened the arctic ice season. The environmental lobby fully expects that, if drilling is approved, industry will sidestep the Rolligons when needed by applying for exemptions and roll in heavier equipment.

As for drilling, environmentalists point out that directional wells on the North Slope have averaged around one and a half kilometers in length, reaching a maximum of six kilometers in one instance, and that they in fact turned out to be so expensive that BP abandoned them entirely in 2000. Environmentalists also doubt claims that exploration can somehow be confined to winter, pointing out that oil companies have never ceased production in the summer on the North Slope.

In these and other arguments, however, one begins to sense that environmentalists are not so much addressing the technologies themselves as industry’s willingness to employ them, an interpretation borne out by the title of the Wilderness Society’s report on the subject, “Broken Promises.” The bulk of most environmental presentations, in fact, concerns not possibilities or drawbacks inherent in an approach like directional drilling but rather industry’s poor record in employing old and new technology alike, complete with the usual photos of production facili­ties belching black smoke, the sprawling infrastructure at Prudhoe Bay, and roads crisscrossing the tundra. Environmentalists fully expect more of the same in the refuge.

More to the point, as environmentalists see it, the argument is not about technology at all. Fancy wells are still wells, less intrusive exploration is still intrusive, and pipelines remain pipelines (as well as the subject of the most laughably devious language in recent House bills regarding the refuge, which would limit the footprint of any industry activity—including the 150-kilometer or longer pipeline—to eight square kilometers but interprets the pipeline’s footprint as that of the thin piers on which it would rest). None of these innovations, environmentalists contend, is compatible with wilderness, and they will turn a refuge into an industrial corridor.

It is not beyond the bounds of reason, however, to imagine that industry could drill with acceptably low impact. Man is an intelligent animal, after all, and ought to be able to remove oil from the ground without devastating the surrounding area. Less philosophically, the legal fines attached to environmental regulations are a mighty motivator. David Masiel, a former North Slope oilman, addressed this topic in a 2004 article in Outside magazine. He visited the North Slope and had conversations with drillers, executives, and enforcement officials. He found a new culture of cleanliness, mainly inspired by the threat of expensive lawsuits, to the point that drillers were actually baking gravel free of spilled oil. Writing for a magazine that has previously taken the administration to task for its environmental policies, Masiel concluded that drilling could be done in the Arctic with a tolerable level of damage—but only if clean drilling was legally enforced.

Secretary of the interior Gale Norton, in testimony before the House in 2003, emphasized that “the administration views tough regulation as an essential part of the ANWR proposal.” But the administration has squandered its credibility there—something that may not have been apparent when Masiel took his trip in 2002—and has in fact been rolling back environmental regulations at a historically unprecedented rate. Areas designated as “roadless” in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, for instance, are no longer roadless, and protections for wildlife across the United States have been greatly weakened, as bird watchers in New York recently discovered when a famous red-tailed hawk’s nest was removed from a cornice by finicky apartment dwellers. Rules that have survived are simply not enforced: old cases have been dropped, and new ones are decreasingly pursued. It is only realistic to imagine that the same standards will be applied to the oil fields.

The technology for drilling with low impact may be available. Based on the administration’s record of legislation and enforcement, however, it is unlikely that industry will be compelled to use it. Those technologies, such as coiled-tubing drilling, that have already proven themselves to be both environmentally and economically advantageous may be employed. Those that signifi­cantly increase the cost of drilling will be shoved aside unless the administration mandates their use, which it will not. Industry is not a moral being but an economic creature responding only to economic stimuli. As such, given the current balance of power in Washington, DC, there is good reason to conclude that big oil probably could drill clean, but probably won’t.