Drill, Baby,Drill? Do It Sideways, Says Senator
You’ve got to give Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski credit for persistence. Despite the odds, she’s keeping alive the dream of drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
That long effort came up short even when Republicans ruled Congress and two oilmen ran the White House.
Now, with President Obama and the Democrats who run Congress pushing hard to cut fossil fuel emissions, expand renewable energy and safeguard the environment, the prospects for opening ANWR appear as far-fetched as ever.
But Murkowski is taking a different tack — by coming at it from another direction. She argues that the oil beneath ANWR’s surface could be extracted through a process called directional drilling. The idea is to set up a drilling rig outside the pristine refuge, go in sideways to drain the oil, and leave the caribou and tundra untouched. She’s hoping to get language into this year’s energy bill that would permit the sideways siphoning technology to set up in Alaska.
On paper, it’s an elegant solution to a decades-old dispute, with something to offer oil companies and environmentalists alike. Indeed, the proposal sounds too good to be true — and experts say that in ANWR’s case, it probably is.
Directional drilling technology, described by oil engineers as a “huge technological breakthrough,” has been around since the 1990s, and has been used successfully in geologic petroleum formations around the world. But the farthest a drill can go out horizontally is about 12 miles — and even that is a “tremendous engineering feat,” according to Larry Nation, a spokesman for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
That won’t go far in ANWR’s 19 million acres. “It would only be on the edge,” said Nation. “It would be like trying to reach under the crawl space of your house with your arm.”
What’s more, Nation explained, directional drilling can’t be set up just anywhere. Oil wells are designed to follow geological formations, not lines on a map. So there’s no guarantee that a horizontal formation of oil reserves will be conveniently located at the edge of ANWR’s border. Nonetheless, Nation said, “although it wouldn’t be very efficient, you could get some oil out that way.”
For Murkowski, that seems to be enough. She says she knows it’s unlikely that ANWR drilling could get a break after all these years. “I know the definition of insanity,” she says, referring to the old saw about compulsively trying the same approach to a problem expecting to get a different result. But like every Alaskan who’s served in Congress in modern times, she also knows that her job depends on keeping the ANWR drumbeat alive.
“This is a new way to keep the debate going,” she said.