Alaska Dispatch columnist Craig Medred: ‘More half-truth about risks’



Well-known Alaska reporter-turned-columnist Craig Medred blasted the New York Times yesterday for its poor reporting on BP’s Liberty oil field development offshore Alaska.

Medred, who used to do outdoors coverage for McClatchy’s Anchorage Daily News, currently has a regular column in the popular new online publication Alaska Dispatch. Not considered a fan of the oil and gas industry, he is known for his direct, often abrasive approach to controversial issues.

In his June 24 column, titled “More half-truth about risks posed by Liberty project,” Medred’s at his abrasive best in his chastisement of the New York Times Liberty article published earlier on the same day.

His descriptions of the NYT’s coverage include such choice words as “gone wild,” “making things up” and “irrelevant.”

He also makes the point that the ‘some’ in the newspaper’s headline—“BP is pursuing Alaska drilling some call risky”—are “an unnamed ‘scientist’ or two supposedly with the U.S. Minerals Management Service and an advocate for an environmental group.”

Whether the unnamed scientists “know anything about geology and drilling is unknown,” Medred notes.

Development, not exploration drilling

What he doesn’t point out is that Liberty drilling is development drilling, not exploration drilling, so relief well capability isn’t an issue. Unlike BP’s Macondo exploration well in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, the characteristics of the Liberty reservoir are already well known— i.e. reservoir engineering and earlier exploration have already determined it is a relatively low pressure reservoir. Why else would BP need water injection to enhance the oil recovery?

In other words, BP is using water injection to force oil out of the reservoir because there’s not enough natural pressure to cause the oil to gush out unaided at the required production rates.

Liberty development has not been controversial

Part of the problem with the New York Times coverage of Liberty is some basic premises that just are not true.

For example, the article calls Liberty development controversial. It hasn’t been controversial. If BP had wanted to build a production island in the Beaufort Sea on top of the Liberty reservoir, that might have been controversial, but apart from the June 24 NYT story and objections from the more extreme environmental lobby, it’s been pretty non-controversial.

Research through local news reports would have established that.

Another fallacy in the NYT article: Liberty “sits on an artificial island … built by BP.” This reads as if BP just built this island. In fact, the company extended an existing Endicott artificial island that, as Medred points out, is connected to shore by a causeway, so it’s more of a peninsula than an island.

Out of context

And then there is this statement: “And because of the distance and angles involved, drilling requires far more powerful machinery, putting extra pressure on pipes and well casings.”

The use of the word “pressure” here might imply to the uninformed reader that the exceptional length of the well somehow increases the pressure in the well. The technical challenges are the torque that the rig has to apply to the drill string and the force required to pull piping from the well. These challenges could result in broken drill pipe, but that’s a different issue from losing control of the hydrocarbons in the well.

The reduced environmental risk at Liberty isn’t because of extended reach drilling per-se. It’s because BP is drilling from an existing artificial island close to the coast.

The use of Gary Christman’s quote in the context of this story would seem to imply that BP accepts some heightened environmental risk at Liberty. The challenge that Christman was referring to was that of being able to drill successful production and injection wells over the required horizontal distances of several miles, not the risk of an environmental disaster.

(This we can safely say because the quote originates in a 2007 article in a special publication released by our sister publication, Petroleum News.)

Editor’s note: Alaska Dispatch was founded by Alaska journalists (and husband and wife) Tony Hopfinger and Amanda Coyne in 2008. In mid-2009, Alice Rogoff, a longtime supporter of journalism and former chief financial officer of U.S. News and World Report, became the majority owner of Alaska Dispatch. Today, in addition to Hopfinger and Coyne, Alaska Dispatch employs 10 seasoned journalists, two of whom have been on teams that have won Pulitzer Prizes.

Links of interest

New York Times: BP is pursuing Alaska drilling some call risky

Alaska Dispatch: More half-truth about risks posed by Liberty project

Petroleum News special publication article with Gary Christman’s quote

Kay Cashman can be reached at