Feds take public comment on Hilcorp’s offshore Liberty project

A 2013 BOEM map shows the location of the Liberty project when it was controlled by BP. (Courtesy of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management)
A 2013 BOEM map shows the location of the Liberty project when it was controlled by BP. (Courtesy of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management)

Shell may have given up on drilling off Alaska’s coast, but federal regulators are now taking public comment on another — though very different — offshore drilling proposal.

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Hilcorp’s proposed Liberty project would build an island in 19 feet of water in the Beaufort Sea near Deadhorse. The site is about five and a half miles offshore.

That’s much closer than Shell’s proposed site, which was 70 miles offshore, in about 150 feet of water.

On Monday night, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) wrapped up the last of five public meetings asking Alaskans what it should consider as it begins to analyze the potential environmental impacts of the project.

“These would be issues that our analysts may not necessarily be aware of,” said BOEM spokesman John Callahan. “For example, when we go to some of the North Slope villages, they might come to us and say, ‘hey, as you do this EIS, it’s very important for you to know that we’ve seen whales in such and such an area in the last five years when we never did before.’ Or, ‘you guys really need to be aware that this other area is an important subsistence fishing area.'”

There are already four man-made islands used for oil production in the Beaufort Sea, including Hilcorp’s Northstar site. Liberty would be the first such island in federal waters.

Kate Blair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said that her organization will stress in its comments that the project uses familiar technology.

“We’re talking about a development that’s six miles offshore, that’s very similar to other islands operating in the area…in very, very shallow water, using methods that have been used for more than forty years,” Blair said.

Lois Epstein of The Wilderness Society said her group also plans to submit comments — and they will ask regulators to make sure they understand all the impacts of previous man-made islands before approving another one.

“What is the state of the science?” Epstein asked. “What is the understanding, both Western and in terms of traditional knowledge, of what happens when you put in these islands that were not there before? What is it going to do to the coastline in the Arctic?”

BOEM will likely take at least a year to complete an Environmental Impact Statement. If the project is approved, the earliest Hilcorp could begin work would probably be late 2017.