Arctic drilling expansion getting frosty reception


Published: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 12:52 a.m.
Oil 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, will also make it easier to look for energy in places where ice-road construction is difficult - an important technological advance as the company eyes less-developed areas beyond Alaska's 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.
Innovative design 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," Anadarko's 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 3 months to get in and out before the spring thaw, or just enough time to drill one exploratory well per site.
Expansion fears 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.
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 drawbacks.
Those include, but are not limited to: 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."

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