North Slope rejects ice road to offshore drill site

Posted: Tuesday, November 21, 2000

ANCHORAGE -- The North Slope Borough planning commission has turned down a permit application from three companies to build an ice road into the Beaufort Sea this winter to look for oil.

The application technically met requirements but objections to offshore drilling from residents killed the permit, North Slope Borough officials said.

Phillips Alaska Inc. planned to drill one well from an ice island at the McCovey prospect, 12 miles offshore. The company may appeal the borough planning commission's decision to the borough assembly, said Phillips spokesman Jerry Gallagher.

Phillips and Chevron hold an interest in McCovey. Calgary-based Alberta Energy Inc. has agreed to earn an equal interest in the prospect by funding exploration, scheduled to begin this winter.

''We have valid leases. Denying reasonable and valid access to those leases is of great concern to us,'' Gallagher said. ''We could lose the drilling season.''

But North Slope residents are wary of oil exploration and development in the waters they rely on for whales, seals and fish.

''People are very fearful something would happen to the bowhead whale,'' said Tom Albert, with the borough's Department of Wildlife Management.

The North Slope Borough permit is only one in a sheaf of permits needed for McCovey. Phillips has a permit to drill from the federal Minerals Management Service and a state permit to build an ice road through state waters within three miles of shore. But the North Slope Borough must also approve ice road construction in state waters, said Gordon Brower Jr. with borough's Planning Department.

Hundreds of miles of ice roads are built across the North Slope every winter. The roads allow companies to explore with no permanent impact.

The Planning Department staff recommended approving the ice road, Brower said. But at a public meeting in Barrow last week, the eight-member planning commission turned down the permit.

Some residents at a public meeting expressed concern about safety, saying the ice pack could split or buckle as plates of ice collide. Phillips' plan to store fuel at tiny Reindeer Island concerned some people, Brower said.

Beneath the specific complaints is an unease about oil development farther into the Beaufort Sea, Albert said.

At the Northstar oil development, 12 miles west, BP has not yet found a way to clean up an oil spill should one occur.

''There's heartburn about that,'' Mayor George Ahmaogak said.

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