Judging the impact of oil rigs' footprints

Conflict: Oil companies say new technology leaves little imprint on the fragile tundra. Environmentalists counter that the industry's impression is indelible.

May 08, 2001|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ALPINE FIELD, Alaska - Jutting out of the sparkling snowfield, the exploratory oil rig is crammed with pipes, platforms and state-of-the-art computer gear. A crew in hard hats, wrestling with a huge vertical pipe moving in and out of the ground, is shouting above the constant clang.

It looks like a regular rig but sits on a thick pad of ice, doing minimal damage to the tender tundra, according to its operator, Phillips Alaska, which opened the 300 million-barrel field near Prudhoe Bay in November.

In the summer, the ice will melt and only an 8-foot pipe will be left sticking out, said oil engineer Mark St. Amour, at work on the rig. There won't even be a permanent road to the site, and the herds of wildlife that swarm over the region during the thaw will barely know it's there. Or so Phillips says.

With a significant spill last month at Phillips' nearby Kuparuk field focusing attention on the perils of drilling on Alaska's North Slope, the company hopes that the new techniques in use at Alpine will quiet environmentalists' fears that oil exploration will forever blemish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east.

The oil companies are strongly supported by President Bush, who says tapping the refuge's 3.2 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil can help solve the U.S. energy shortage while barely disturbing one of the continent's last pristine ecosystems.

Environmentalists say a clean oil operation is an impossibility and that the 19 million-acre refuge - home to more than 200 species of animals, including the 129,000 caribou of the Porcupine herd and swans that migrate from the Chesapeake Bay - would be changed indelibly.

"Oil development is a messy business, even with the best technology," said Pamela A. Miller, an environmental consultant in Anchorage who is fighting to keep the Arctic refuge free of oil rigs.

Last month, a pipeline ruptured at the 20-year-old Kuparuk field, spewing 92,400 gallons of crude oil and hot salt water onto the tundra. The accident - the fourth significant spill in the fields around Prudhoe Bay this winter - was blamed on corrosion at a weld joint, a common problem at older oil fields such as Kuparuk, the second largest on the North Slope.

In February, a leak at an oil-processing facility at Prudhoe Bay dumped an estimated 11,550 gallons of crude oil and methanol. Between 1994 and 1999, there have been 1,600 spills - most of them minor - of oil or other fluid in the oil fields and along the 800-mile pipeline that delivers North Slope oil to the port of Valdez, according to state records.

While crews moved quickly to mop up the latest spill, which covered eight-tenths of an acre, the success of the cleanup won't be known until the snow and ice disappear this summer. Oil typically is less of a problem because it lies atop the ice, congeals in cold weather and is easier to clean up. Salt water, however, seeps into the relatively light snow cover; during melting, it is absorbed by the tundra, penetrating and poisoning the roots of mosses and other sensitive groundcover.

A few days later, BP - the other major oil-producing company at Prudhoe Bay - reported that about 10 percent of the safety shut-off valves at its Western Prudhoe Bay drilling operation failed state tests this year, prompting one state official to warn of a "catastrophic failure." The valves are designed to shut down the transport of crude in case of a leak or other accident. A BP investigation indicated that the valves didn't work because they weren't properly lubricated.

The Alpine field - the largest onshore oil discovery in North America during the past decade - is already pumping 80,000 barrels a day. Still in the development phase, it sits on 40,000 acres of frozen tundra, and it's not a pretty sight at the moment, with scattered pipelines, buildings and equipment that billows exhaust. But much of the manmade mess will be cleaned up when construction of the field is complete, Phillips officials say.

Technology advances

And then, they say, only 97 acres of tundra should be affected by oil drilling, thanks to the new technologies, most of which will be used in the wildlife refuge - if Congress approves oil exploration there. Among them:

Pipelines are constructed in vertical loops, which confine leaks and ruptures and reduce the need for valves, which require heavy maintenance.

"Directional drilling" enables wells to be drilled horizontally to target small oil patches and reach a greater radius so that well pads are more compact, reducing the impact on the tundra. Supercomputers enable geologists to identify smaller amounts of oil.

At Alpine Field, a new pipeline crossing the Colville River was built about 100 feet under the riverbed. Many older pipelines that cross rivers are built above the surface, using bridges or trenches that disturb the river bottom.

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