Army Corps OKs access to reserve for Conoco Phillips

NPR-A: Company can now build bridges and crossings.

Associated PressDecember 19, 2011 

The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is among Alaska lands that could be affected by a new Obama administration wilderness policy.

ANNE RAUP / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE Buy Photo

Conoco Phillips has received a federal permit that will allow the oil company to build bridge and pipeline crossings over Alaska's Colville River and gain access to leases within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The Army Corps of Engineers announced Monday it granted the Clean Water Act permit to Conoco Phillips Alaska to reach its CD-5 Alpine Development project.

The permit was expected after the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service two weeks ago gave their blessing to the crossings if mitigation measures were put in place.

Sen Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the permit clears the way for the NPR-A's first oil production. "NPR-A has long been cited as an example of the federal government's commitment to domestic oil production, but in reality, the gates to NPR-A have been locked by bureaucracy and regulatory red tape," she said. "The corps' revised decision finally unlocks those gates."

The petroleum reserve on the North Slope was originally created by President Warren Harding in 1923 and covers 23 million acres -- an area slightly smaller than the state of Indiana. As of July, the reserve had 310 authorized oil and gas leases totaling more than 3 million acres. A federal lease sale Dec. 7 took high bids of $3 million for 141,739 more acres.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell hailed the permit announcement as a means to increase state petroleum production. "The potential new production from the NPR-A can lead to more jobs for Alaskans," he said in prepared remarks.

Conoco Phillips Alaska spokeswoman Natalie Lowman said the company was pleased that the corps issued the permit.

"Over the coming months, we plan to evaluate and incorporate the terms of the permit into our project plan as we attempt to progress to full sanctioning in the coming year," Lowman said by email.

Oil pumped from within the reserve would cross the Colville River to infrastructure already in place at Conoco Phillips' Alpine fields and eventually to the trans-Alaska pipeline. The CD-5 field is on the eastern edge of the petroleum reserve and an extension of Conoco Phillips' Alpine Field.

In February 2010, the Corps of Engineers denied a permit for a bridge and said a buried pipe would be less environmentally damaging. Conoco Phillips appealed, and the corps sought a review of the proposal by the EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The corps evaluated four alternatives and considered pipelines above and below ground, ultimately concluding that the above-ground pipe presented less of a risk to the river's ecosystem, the agency said.

"The clarifying information we reviewed and conditions agreed to by Conoco Phillips cleared the way for us to issue this permit," Col. Reinhard Koenig, the corps' Alaska District commander, said in the announcement. "It's testament to the corps' permit evaluation process and our ability to make balanced and independent decisions."

The permit gives Houston-based Conoco Phillips the ability to build a drill pad, a six-mile access road, four bridge crossings, two valve pads with access roads, and new pipeline support structures.

The permit includes 22 special conditions intended to minimize the impact to the environment within the Arctic Coastal Plain. Among them is an agreement to allow other companies that develop leases within the petroleum reserve to use the river crossing rather than build additional channel crossings in the area.

Alaska's congressional delegation issued statements praising the decision.

Republican Rep. Don Young said the decision was overdue. Democratic Sen. Mark Begich said the permit "will give the industry a chance to show once again that we know how to do development right in Alaska, we can help fill the pipeline, and create hundreds of good-paying construction jobs to build this new field in NPR-A."

Rebecca Noblin of the Center for Biological Diversity in Anchorage, however, called it "another big gift to the oil companies" from President Barack Obama's administration.

"After initially finding that a bridge across the Colville River would not be the least environmentally damaging way for Conoco Phillips to access new oil fields in the NPR-A, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has flip-flopped," she said by email. "The Conoco Phillips bridge will go up in the heart of a rich ecosystem that harbors a wide variety of plants, fish, birds and mammals, including threatened polar bears and Steller's and spectacled eiders."

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