Working closely with communities and protecting the environment are key values everywhere we operate but are especially important in the sensitive ecosystem on the North Slope of Alaska.
With more than 40 years of experience in the area, our employees and contractors understand the challenges of operating on the tundra. And they were able to utilize that experience to develop Alpine drill site CD5, the first oil development on Alaska Native lands within the boundaries of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A). Long-anticipated first oil was celebrated October 2015. Alpine is a land-based North Slope oil and gas field developed without a permanent road connecting it to other North Slope infrastructure, so many things can only be delivered via winter ice roads. To the challenge of operating remotely, add summer terrain defined by ecologically sensitive tundra, wetlands and abundant wildlife, and harsh winters when temperatures commonly dip to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit and wind gusts can reach near hurricane force.
We started the Alpine project by doing our homework in planning the field, spending more than eight years and millions of dollars establishing baseline conditions, documenting wildlife use and evaluating potential effects of development on the flora and fauna. The environmental and archeological studies, among other things, helped guide placement of drill sites and other facilities to minimize the development’s effects on wildlife, water flow and the subsistence lifestyle of residents in the neighboring village of Nuiqsut.
The first Alpine discovery well was drilled just outside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) in 1994. By 2000, the company had completed the main Alpine drilling pad, called Colville Delta (CD) 1, including the process facility, offices, camp and most of the primary infrastructure needed to support oil development in an area accessible only by air about nine months of the year. By 2006, the field included a total of four drill sites.
A permit application was submitted in 2005 for CD5, which is located 6 miles away across the Colville River in the NPR-A. CD5 was on course to follow its sister drill sites into production, but its environmental and politically sensitive location in the NPR-A sent it down a long and circuitous route.
When we weren’t able to reach agreement with local stakeholders on the location of the main bridge connecting CD5 to Alpine, we withdrew the permit applications and spent the next several years working closely with permitting agencies and Nuiqsut residents to find common ground.
“Stakeholder relations is critical to pretty much everything we do on the North Slope of Alaska,” said Helene Harding, who was vice president of North Slope Operations from January 2008 through June 2011.
At CD5, Nuiqsut isn’t only a neighbor; it’s also a business partner. Kuukpik Corporation, the Native village corporation for Nuiqsut, owns the land on which CD5 sits. “So whatever we do impacts them,” Harding added.
We were committed to finding a path forward that would be workable for all involved. The goal was to minimize the impact of the bridge on key subsistence hunting and fishing areas while ensuring that it would also work from an engineering, access and cost perspective.
“The folks who have lived in the community for many years know the land better than we ever will,” said Project Permitting Coordinator Lynn DeGeorge. “So we sought their advice.”
“One of my most memorable times throughout this project was when we went out to the bridge site with some of the key elders from the village,” Harding said. “The elders laid down on the tundra to look at the maps. I got down with them and that is when we picked the final location for the bridge.”
Permit applications reflecting the updated project design were resubmitted in 2009. The Kuukpik Corporation was on board. In fact, the project had broad support, including the State of Alaska, the Alaska Congressional Delegation, the North Slope Borough and CD5 subsurface owner Arctic Slope Regional Corporation — representing the business interests of approximately 11,000 Inupiaq shareholders.
Even with these key stakeholders aligned, CD5 continued to face permitting and legal hurdles that added two more years to the timeline. But through hard work, perseverance and collaboration, we overcame those challenges and in December 2011, the company received permits, followed by project sanction in 2012.
Once permitted, the project took three years to develop, including a year of planning and two seasons of construction. The lack of a permanent road means Alpine has a smaller footprint, but it also means that construction is bound by the short 90- to 110-day window during the depths of winter when ice roads offer access to the remote frozen tundra. During that time the team completed:
- Construction of the gravel drill site.
- 6-mile gravel road to CD1.
- Four bridges.
- Modular buildings to support oil and gas operations.
- 32 miles of pipeline.
- Electrical and fiber optic cables strung on pipeline supports from Alpine’s main power generation facility.
Crossing the 1,400-foot-wide Nigliq Channel of the Colville River presented a unique challenge. A custom hydraulic package was designed to launch the bridge, 5 feet at a time, from the support on the east side of the river channel to the support on the west side. The bridge launch, as an alternative to standard bridge construction, was a big achievement for the environment and personal safety. It allowed us to significantly reduce the need to stage, maintain and refuel heavy equipment on the Nigliq Channel ice while at the same time keeping the ice clear for snow machines and subsistence access under the bridge. It also reduced our exposure hours of people working at heights by at least 50,000 hours. Additionally, the road and bridge allow emergency response equipment and personnel located at Alpine easy access to the CD5 facilities.
The ConocoPhillips Village Outreach team serves as the face of the company within the community of Nuiqsut. During the CD5 construction season in 2014, Village Outreach staff maintained a full-time presence in Nuiqsut, keeping village residents up-to-date on the work being done at CD5.
“Between all of the construction, the additional workers at Alpine, and the temporary camps in Nuiqsut, communication was vital. We used email lists, radio (VHF) communications, online posts, fliers and newsletters in addition to in-person communication. Being accessible to the community to answer questions and provide timely information is important to ConocoPhillips and an important part of project success,” said Village Outreach Liaison Rusty Creed Brown.
With a construction project the scale of CD5 came hundreds of skilled construction workers, many of whom had never worked in the oil industry. New to the environment and with no previous exposure to the company’s safety culture, these workers were at increased risk of being injured or injuring someone else. Planning for safety success, every worker for the CD5 project was sent through the ConocoPhillips Alaska four-hour incident-free culture safety leadership training before they even set foot on the job site, effectively reinforcing that the safety of its workforce is the top concern for ConocoPhillips.
“I really believe — and it’s more than a priority, it’s a core value — that safety is our number one issue,” added Joe Marushack, president, ConocoPhillips Alaska. “The most important thing I can do is set the right safety tone.”