Alaska senator defends BP Alaska project amid request from colleague in NJ that it be halted

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Sen. Mark Begich is defending a BP oil project off Alaska's coast as a state-of-the-art model that should not be halted because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The Alaska Democrat responded Monday to a request by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat who asked federal officials to halt the project pending an investigation of the Gulf spill, a new review of the Alaska project and implementation of revised drilling rules and regulations.

The Obama administration imposed a moratorium on all deepwater oil exploration after the disaster in the Gulf, but the BP project in Alaska was exempt because it is technically a land-based or on-shore operation.

The project's drilling base is a gravel island built by BP to tap an estimated 100-million barrel reservoir off the coast. The rig will drill horizontally for six to eight miles in a tactic some critics have called dangerous in light of what happened off Louisiana.

"Recent events show that when the Department of Interior approves novel and risky approaches to drilling in the absence of proven technologies to stop a spill, tragedy ensues," Lautenberg said in a letter last week to the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, formerly known as the Minerals Management Service.

"Stopping and containing an oil spill in the gulf has proven to be beyond our capacity," he wrote. "A spill in the frigid and harsh conditions of the Arctic would be even more difficult to contain."

Begich said he shares Lautenberg's frustrations with the Gulf disaster. But Begich said it's unfair to compare the projects and calls it "short-sighted" to stop the Alaska development before it begins. He said project is important to his constituents and claims it has been subject to "some of the most intense government and public scrutiny of any oil development project in America."

BP has yet to apply for a federal drilling permit, though BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said BP hopes to drill its first development well later this year and to have first production next year. An estimated 40,000 barrels a day is expected.

Rinehart said the company is fine with the Liberty project getting new scrutiny and would cooperate with the federal government if it deemed additional review was warranted. He said the company also is "constantly evaluating and re-evaluating to make sure the design is appropriate, and that (the project) can be accomplished safely."

"We're proud of this project, and a great deal of thought has gone into it," he said.

An Interior Department spokeswoman said that in the wake of the Gulf spill and changes the federal government is making, officials will also look for such things as oil spill response and blowout prevention plans when reviewing drilling permit applications.