New arctic platform seen as boon, bane to environment
New arctic platform seen as boon, bane to environment
By Brad Foss
The Associated Press
(Published: January 27, 2003)
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 manmade ice roads that safeguard the underlying tundra.
But Anadarko Petroleum Corp. aims to free itself from some of the 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 undeveloped areas beyond Prudhoe Bay and nearby fields, where production is about half the levels of 15 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 marks 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.
Mark Hanley, Anadarko's public-affairs manager for Alaska, said the platform, if it works, could shorten by years the time from leasing to drilling to development. This would raise the return on investing in development and should make marginal oil and gas prospects more attractive to pursue.
Before building ice roads each winter, the oil industry must wait while the ground freezes enough to support the weight of heavy machinery that gets moved. Last winter, ice-road construction couldn't begin until late January, he said. They cost an estimated $100,000 per mile to build and give companies roughly three months to get in and out before the spring thaw.
A well might get drilled in winter, evaluated during the summer and fall, then another ice road gets built the next year to drill a second well to delineate the prospect.
"It can take four seasons for one prospect," Hanley said.
The new platform can be moved into place in late summer or fall and in some cases left in place year-round, he said. This could greatly shorten the oil and gas exploration cycle on the Slope.
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 platform.
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."
Hanley said the company expects the government will impose many environmental restrictions, from how and when a platform can move across the tundra to protections on activity around wildlife and sensitive habitat.
The 10,000-square-foot platform, whose design is based on offshore drilling platforms, is made up of about two dozen prefabricated, interlocking aluminum modules that weigh about 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 areas, including swampy areas.
On the Net: www.anadarko.com
Trustees for Alaska: www.trustees.org
Alaska Department of Natural Resources: www.dnr.state.ak.us www.rolligon.com
Alaska Governor Seeks More Oil Drills: 1/27/03 MSNBC: http://www.msnbc.com/news/863723.asp
Plans for longer oil season has activists concerned about wildlife 1/27/03 MSNBC http://www.msnbc.com/news/862830.asp
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