Petroleum exploration in arctic Alaska has for decades occurred during the coldest months of the year to protect the ecosystem. Now, a plan to extend the season has environmentalists worried about the impact on wildlife and the likelihood that oil and gas production will spread more quickly to remote areas.
The winter-only season for exploratory-drilling allows heavy equipment to be shipped back and forth over man-made ice roads that safeguard the underlying tundra. But Anadarko Petroleum Corp. aims to free itself from such restrictions with a new drilling platform whose lightweight components fit together like Lego pieces and can be transported directly across the tundra, saving money and time.
Anadarko's arctic platform, which gets its first real test in March, also will facilitate the hunt for energy in places where ice-road construction is difficult -- an important technological advance as the company eyes less-developed areas beyond Alaska's unofficial hub, Prudhoe Bay, where oil fields are about half as productive as they were 20 years ago.
Environmentalists say the Anadarko plan will increase noise and air pollution, risk greater damage to the ecosystem in the event of a spill and further intrude upon plants and animals, including caribou, grizzly bears and migratory birds.
They also fear the industry could use a variation of this technology to stretch the exploratory drilling season in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is currently off-limits to petroleum producers but which Congress is considering opening to winter-only exploration.
''It poses some serious questions,'' said Jenna App, a staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska, an Anchorage-based nonprofit law firm whose clients include conservation groups and Native communities.
''If it grabs hold and extends the season, that would be ideal for the oil companies and less than ideal for most of the species that use the region for breeding,'' App said.
To be sure, Anadarko's patented design is innovative and does offer some environmentally friendly changes to existing industry practices.
For example, the arctic platform doubles as a production unit and stands about 12 feet above the tundra. That eliminates the need to build permanent production facilities on top of widely used gravel pads, which can leave long-lasting scars on the land and are expensive to clean up.
''The less gravel the industry puts on the tundra, the more favorably the state looks on (proposed) projects,'' said Anne Vincent, manager of communications for Houston-based Anadarko.
There are economic incentives as well.
Under traditional methods, a permanent gravel pad and production platform are built when an exploratory well is drilled successfully -- that is, when oil or gas flows as planned. Unlike exploration, oil production is a perennial activity.
If the exploratory well is a dud, though, equipment and crews must be moved out before the ice thaws, forcing the company to wait another year to begin the process all over again.
''As soon as it starts getting soupy out there, we've got to take rigs out even if we're not finished,'' Vincent said. ''That's a pretty expensive way to do business.''
Ice roads, which replaced gravel roads in the 1980s as a result of tougher environmental laws, cost an estimated $100,000 per mile to build. They give companies roughly three months to get in and out before the spring thaw, or just enough time to drill one exploratory well per site.
But the industry is finding its window of opportunity increasingly constrained by shorter winters, a trend some environmentalists point to as evidence of global climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
While Anadarko would not discuss the cost of the arctic platform or estimate how much it might reduce expenses, the company said it will enable exploratory drilling to occur nearly year-round, improving the efficiency of operations and creating more job opportunities for Alaska.
Another catalyst for the arctic platform is Anadarko's intention to pursue natural gas in the foothills of the Brooks Range, where ice-road construction is made difficult by the steep gradient of the land.
Anadarko said removal of the arctic platform is relatively easy compared with gravel pads and leaves little mess. Holes dug in the ground for pilings can be backfilled, allowing the tundra to heal naturally.
While environmentalists concede that reducing the industrial footprint at abandoned drilling sites is a good thing, they are more worried that the arctic platform concept would help spread industrial activity on Alaska's North Slope -- now concentrated in the northeast -- further south and west.
The North Slope refers to a vast territory wedged between the Arctic Ocean and the Brooks Range that is open to oil and gas exploration.
The first arctic platform will be erected on a relatively busy patch of land 80 miles south of Prudhoe Bay. It is there that Anadarko is conducting federally sponsored research into the feasibility of extracting natural gas from ice.
Anadarko's ''hot ice,'' or methane hydrate, test is part of a much longer-term industrywide study whose practical applicability remains far off at best, the company said. But the arctic platform concept could be deployed relatively soon for traditional oil and gas exploration if the test run goes smoothly.
Steve Schmitz, a natural resource specialist in the oil and gas division of Alaska's Department of Natural Resources, said the arctic platform ''has a lot of potential.''
''They may work out so great that there's demand for them,'' Schmitz said, although he cautioned that his agency is aware of the potential environmental drawbacks of the arctic platform.
Those include caribou seeking shelter from the sun underneath the elevated platforms and the difficulty of cleaning up spills when the ground isn't covered by snow and ice.
As Pam Miller, an Anchorage-based environmental consultant put it: ''They will have noisy, polluting rigs out at the same time that caribou are calving and birds are nesting, introducing a higher level of potential conflicts.''
The 10,000-square-foot arctic platform, whose design is based on that of an offshore drilling platform, is made up of about two dozen prefabricated, interlocking aluminum modules that weigh approximately 15,000 pounds each. It will be connected by a suspended bridge to a smaller platform to be used as a housing unit for employees.
The platform modules are light enough to be carried directly across the tundra on all-terrain vehicles called rolligons, which have fat rubber tires that exert just a few pounds of weight per square inch. Rolligon use is prohibited in late spring and early summer, when the ground is softest, but Anadarko believes it can eventually transport the modules via helicopter.
Anadarko said its arctic platform design could someday be applied to other environmentally sensitive places, including swampy areas.
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