Groups call for halt to BP drilling plans in Beaufort Sea

Six environmental groups have written Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, asking that he deny BP's expected application to begin drilling its $1.5 billion Liberty oil field in the Beaufort Sea.

The Obama administration imposed a moratorium on deepwater oil exploration after the Gulf of Mexico spill but BP's Liberty project is exempt from the moratorium because it's a land-based operation.

BP plans to tap its Liberty prospect in federal waters by developing the longest oil wells ever built -- six to eight miles in length. A gigantic rig would drill the wells horizontally from a gravel island built by BP decades ago to produce oil from its 23-year-old Endicott oil field. The island is linked to the coast by a causeway.

At its peak, Liberty would produce roughly 40,000 barrels of oil per day.

When Liberty was unveiled two years ago, environmentalists said they had mixed feelings about it. They said they liked that the project used horizontal-drilling technology, which reduces the footprint size of the development and amount of wildlife disruption. But they worried about the impact on wildlife species already at risk due to climate change and they worried about the impact of noise from seismic surveys on whales and other marine mammals.

The environmental groups now say the Gulf accident has called into question BP's assurances about safety and response capability and the company's future ability to fund a potential oil spill cleanup in the Arctic.

"If anything, the Arctic is even more vulnerable to an oil spill than the Gulf of Mexico," the groups said in their letter to Salazar on Thursday. The groups include the Center for Biological Diversity, the Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Environment and the Sierra Club.

Earlier this week, a BP spokesman said the company had yet to apply for a federal drilling permit.

Staff and wire reports