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BP returns to traditional concepts for long-delayed Liberty oil field

  • Author: Yereth Rosen
    | Arctic
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published January 9, 2014

BP once touted its Liberty prospect in the Beaufort Sea as a marvel of ultra-extended-reach drilling technology that would show the world how distant offshore oil could be produced from wells drilled from the safety of land.

Not anymore.

BP is now hoping to develop Liberty the old-fashioned way -- with an artificial island constructed in the shallow and icy sea, with drill pads on that artificial island and with a subsea pipeline carrying produced crude from the wells drilled on that pad to the North Slope main pipeline network onshore.

The company has submitted an application to federal regulators for approval to work in the Beaufort Sea this spring to scope out potential sites for offshore drill pads and pipelines. The application, filed Dec.19 with federal regulators at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, outlines BP's plans to drill soils in the water and on land, and to examine the seafloor, in operations to be conducted from March to May.

BP intends to do geotechnical drilling in the Beaufort to evaluate soils, information needed to select drill pad and pipeline locations, and similar geotechnical drilling onshore to look for the optimal location to find fill material to use to build an island, according to the application.

The new approach replaces BP's ambitious plan to use what it claimed would be the world's longest extended-reach wells to tap Liberty's estimated 150 million barrels of recoverable oil. That plan, detailed in a 2007 application to BOEM's predecessor agency, the Minerals Management Service, won federal approval and some kudos from the North Slope Borough and Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, groups that considered a drill-from-land design less environmentally risky than the typical offshore development.

BP boasted repeatedly that its Liberty development plan, with wells expected to stretch eight miles horizontally, would set new standards for the oil industry. The company touted Liberty in brochures, in presentations by corporate officials and on television commercials aired in Alaska, and said first production would come by 2011.

Liberty would have been the first producing oil field located entirely in federal waters off Alaska.

But numerous problems arose, and BP in 2012 temporarily shelved Liberty.

A custom rig built for BP by Parker Drilling, intended to have the power to drill the horizontal distances planned for Liberty, turned out to be a flop. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in new scrutiny of all offshore plans, especially those of BP, and raised questions about the yet-untested ultra-extended-reach drilling. And BP made some financial recalculations, concluding that Liberty was too expensive to pursue as intended in that plan.

It would be too costly to correct the rig's problems "and bring it up to our standards and bring it up to DOI standards," said BP spokeswoman Dawn Patience. The rig remains on the North Slope, she said.

BOEM and its sister Department of Interior agency, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, have granted BP an extension on Liberty and another chance to form a development plan. BSEE has now set a deadline for first production by the end of 2020.

BP intends to follow through, Patience said. "We will submit a revised development and production plan by the end of 2014," she said.

If so, it will be the third full development plan for Liberty. The first plan, submitted in 1998 and approved by the MMS, envisioned a traditional offshore island and stand-alone production facility, similar to the way BP developed its Northstar field in the 1990s. That plan was dropped in 2002.

Despite all the delays, BP has been expressing some new optimism about Liberty. In a 2012 letter to BSEE, BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. President John Minge said opting for the traditional stand-alone island development instead of using ultra-extended-reach drilling could be increasing Liberty's oil recovery by up to 15 percent. He cited BP's past experience constructing offshore islands for oil production on the North Slope, and said BP "remains undeterred and committed to developing the Liberty unit."

Contact Yereth Rosen at

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