An Arctic Oil Frontier: The History and Uncertainty of the Liberty Field Project

BP Exploration Alaska Inc is an oil exploration company that has had a significant impact on Alaska’s oil industry, particularly through the Liberty project. The Liberty Field was discovered by Royal Dutch Shell in the 1980s and is located entirely in the federally controlled Outer Continental Shelf, in the Beaufort Sea. The field is estimated to have around 150 million barrels of recoverable oil, and BP Exploration Alaska pursued the project for two decades. Despite having an ambitious plan to develop the project by producing oil from the shore using ultra-extended-reach drilling, the company withdrew the development plan four years after sanctioning it.

The Liberty project has a long history, and its current owner, Hilcorp, is yet to decide if it will pursue the project. In late 2018, a Hilcorp development and production plan was approved by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Still, the approval was overturned by the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2020. The suspension of the three leases comprising the Liberty prospect is in effect for three years and stops the clock from ticking toward lease expiration, according to BOEM.

Despite the uncertainties surrounding the Liberty project, BP Exploration has had a significant impact on Alaska’s oil industry. The company’s ambitious plan to produce oil from the shore using ultra-extended-reach drilling was an example of “exploration through technology,” according to Doug Suttles, BP Alaska Exploration. President at the time. However, the plan was criticized by Mark Myers, a former Alaska Department of Natural Resources commissioner and a geologist who serves on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

The uncertainties surrounding the Liberty project provide a cautionary tale about the uncertainties of oil development projects. As state officials pin high hopes on ConocoPhillips’ Willow project and the revenues and jobs it will generate, the history at Liberty should be a warning to policymakers and the public about the uncertainties of oil development projects.

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