Scientists to take a long look at North Slope environment

Posted: Tuesday, January 09, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Scientists from across North America are meeting here this week to begin looking at possible environmental impacts from oil and gas development on the North Slope.

The scientists are working under the umbrella of the independent National Research Council. For the first time, they will be taking a long look at Big Oil on one of Alaska's most delicate environments.

The review comes at the same time a fresh wave of development is hitting the North Slope's oil patch.

For the most part, wildlife populations are stable in the region. Despite massive emissions, oil company studies say air quality is within legal limits. Eskimo subsistence coexists with the industry in relative peace. Oil facilities cover less than one-half of 1 percent of the entire North Slope.

But every discovery brings more pipe, more people and more pickups.

Caribou have begun shifting their range away from the fields. Some bird species are suffering local losses. Eskimo whalers increasingly are concerned about offshore development, and the oil industry concedes the tundra probably won't return to its pristine state.

''What the cumulative impacts are is a fascinating question and one that is long overdue,'' said Marcia Combes, head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency in Alaska. The EPA is funding the National Research Council review.

The question also promises to be especially sticky.

''I don't envy your task one bit,'' said Mike Joyce, who worked on the North Slope for 26 years as an environmental consultant and later as head of biological research for Arco Alaska Inc.

The task would be easier were there an obviously dirty story to tell.

But Alaska's northern oil patch appears to be one of the cleanest in the industry. Buildings are spotless. Waste is carefully handled. And the companies have made great strides in areas like disposing of well lubricants, reducing the size of well production pads and using low-impact ice roads, BP's environmental head Steve Taylor told the council Monday.

But the improvement in operations has gone hand in hand with encroachment into ever more sensitive areas, such as BP's Northstar field in the Beaufort Sea, Phillip's Alpine field in the Colville River Delta and hopes to drill in Teshekpuk Lake in NPR-A or on ANWR's Coastal Plain.

Expanding operations also means increased conflict with Eskimos living on the North Slope. Some Native support is souring on conflicts over Beaufort development and intrusion into hunting grounds near Nuiqsut.

Voicing his frustration in working the BP and Phillips on offshore development in whaling grounds, North Slope Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak told the council Monday: ''If the companies are going to be in the business of resource development, they must deal with the impacts to our people.''

Calculating the cumulative impacts to local people ''will be the most difficult,'' said Joyce, the former Arco employee. ''There is real fear and emotion which dominates thinking.''

Permanent impacts should give Alaskans pause, said Jenna App, an attorney with environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska.

''We need to move forward with understanding that it will never ever be the same again,'' App told the Anchorage Daily News. ''We're making a choice between oil development and wilderness.''

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