Interaction of the Oil Industry and the Arctic Environment

Interaction of the Oil Industry and the Arctic Environment

The oil and gas industry in Alaska’s Arctic have maintained perhaps the most strict code of operations of any industry in the world. This is a result of decades of work and coordination with the State of Alaska, the US Federal Dept. of Interior and the North Slope Borough to maintain safe operations that respect and protect the environment. Regulations require vehicles to park over a “diaper” which collects any possible oil drips under it; to have all buildings built on elevated gravel pads to protect the tundra; to make all gravel pads lined with rubber sheets to make them impermeable to spills; to give way to any wildlife on roads no matter what the delay and elevate or bury pipelines to allow free passage; and to constantly monitor and adjust through yearly study and 24/7 wildlife monitors any effect development has on the environment. In Alaska, these practices are not an option, they are the law and done to achieve a near zero impact to the ecology of the region. By law Alaskan Arctic oil and gas operations can have no negative impact on the environment. The same is written into all laws proposed on development in the 10-02.

Over the last 30 years more data has been collected about the environment in the Alaskan Arctic than perhaps any place in the US. This is done as the industry is required to establish “base line studies” that set the bar for what exists before the industry arrives and what happens when its operational, and a rule which states the environment must be returned to its prior state after the industry leaves. What is brought into the Arctic by the industry must be able to be brought out of the Arctic and all plans are critiqued and approved or not with this in mind.

In ANWR this full cycle can clearly be seen with the only well ever drilled in the 10-02 known as the KIC well (KIC = Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation). KIC was drilled in the winter of 1985 on a thick snow pad and thus required no gravel pad existing at most all sites across the Arctic. It was a roadless development that was only connected by ice airfield. After the well was drilled the site was remediated to its natural state. Pilots flying over the region today state it is extremely difficult to spot where KIC was even flying over at low altitude. For Alaskans the point of all this effort is clear, to use the land but not destroy it, and to return the land back to its original condition for all to enjoy.

What many in opposition to development in the Arctic do not ever acknowledge is the fact that no building, no drilling, no transport or development activity of any kind may take place in the Arctic on or offshore without approval of dozens of federal state and local borough agencies that scrutinize, test, critique and monitor every action that is taken. Whether it’s the US Coast Guard inspecting and approving transport barges, docks or production island design; or it’s the Environmental Protection Agency constantly setting emissions standards, flaring limits, monitoring and approving or not use of chemicals; the Arctic operations are under scrutiny on a level not seen perhaps by any industry in America. Nothing happens in the Arctic oil fields without study, permits, more study and even more permits all the way from preproduction to production to remediation and take down. If the industry fails on any account they are fined and forced to correct operations.

Perhaps the biggest concern by most against development has been with the animal and bird populations. Across the entire Arctic whether in the 10-02 of ANWR or Prudhoe Bay or western Arctic coast the coastal plain is home to dozens of species of mammals and birds. Against what most environmental groups say, no area of the Arctic is unique to the other areas and all support and can support species that range across the entire arctic coastal plain from Canada to the Chukchi Sea.

Three large caribou herds use Alaska’s Arctic and all have been monitored over 30 years and shown no sign of direct negative impact from the industries’ operations. The Central Arctic Herd, which migrates through Prudhoe Bay, has increased from 5000 animals before development to 50,000 animals today. This proves the environmental movements claims of Armageddon for caribou due to development is completely untrue. The Western Arctic Herd and the Porcupine Caribou Herd have no contact with the industry and yet they fluctuate up and down naturally as all herd animals do. The same success can be said of the bird populations, with not a single bird species within the oil field declining and all maintaining a healthy level of population across the entire Arctic. Prudhoe Bay maintains a population of 60 resident brown bears and sees polar bears visit every year. All operations maintain and watch out for wildlife and any transportation movement or drilling activity must stop and give way to animals. State regulations mandate drilling can only take place in the winter to protect the migrating species and any operations offshore cannot take place at all when whales are migrating in spring and fall. Despite the costs of disallowing companies full year operations, often costing the industry millions of dollars in idle time, the care to the environment overrides this and to Alaskan’s, show our commitment to our land and to nature.

As technology has progressed since the first wells were drilled at Prudhoe Bay in the early 70s so has the industry’s right to claim its success in its mandate to protect the land it operates in. Early oil wells were drilled on 10’ high gravel pads that often were large 100 acre islands on the tundra. Well houses were far apart and all the pads were connected by a spine road. A single well was drilled from a single well head and the outreach was short. This resulted in a fairly large footprint. Today new design and technology has allowed the industry to miniaturize its footprint by having 4 or 5 wells emanate and fan out underground from a single wellhead. Wells are closer together allowing pads to be shrunk from 100 acres down to 5 acres with even greater production than before. Drilling in winter allows use of winter ice roads that melt away in summer again reducing the need for connecting roads and gravel.

Alpine oil field on the Colville River is the newest oil field in the Arctic and shows just how small operations have become. Alpine is a roadless field that can only be accessed by ice road in winter or by air in summer. It is a virtual island in the middle of nowhere, nearly completely self-sustaining except for food. The number of wells operational and recovery rate of those wells is far higher than anything in the legacy fields of Prudhoe Bay 20 miles away and yet the footprint is less than 1/8th the size of legacy production. Alpine is indeed an example of what one might see in the 10-02 should development be allowed, a single operational pad with all production facilities included in one spot.

For Alaskan’s the efforts that the industry goes through and the laws in place to regulate operations are not an option and express the concern we have to protect our land. It simply does not behoove and industry to have an accident or spill oil or negatively effect the ecology when that company will be fined, and made to cease operations should it do so. This attitude of responsibility and protection is why Alaskan’s feel they can indeed “do it right” and that ANWR’s 10-02 can be developed safely and effectively.