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ConocoPhillips' next move west on the North Slope may stir controversy

Yereth Rosen
Winter solstice at the Alpine oil field on Alaska's North Slope. Photo tweeted by @LEANNAak

Now that development is underway at what will be the North Slope’s westernmost oil field, ConocoPhillips is looking even farther west to its next frontier conquest.

With development on track for what's called the CD-5 field in the Colville River Delta -- a field that promises to produce the first commercial oil from the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska -- Conoco is now seeking to expand deeper into the reserve to a site designated as the Greater Mooses Tooth Unit.

“For us to move out to the Greater Mooses Tooth area, CD-5 was a must,” Trond-Erik Johansen said in a speech at the Resource Development Council for Alaska’s annual conference. That field is expected to produce 16,000 barrels a day.  

But there's a rub: Conoco's plan for Greater Mooses Tooth, which is southwest of CD-5, includes extending a road network that environmentalists say threatens to extend industrial sprawl over the western North Slope and violates old commitments about road-free oil development with minimal footprint.

Bringing CD-5 on line, Conoco has long maintained, requires a road, a bridge over the Nigliq channel of the braided Colville River and a pipeline to link it to existing facilities at the Alpine oil field on nearby state land. From there, crude oil would travel through pipelines into the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Federal regulators initially balked at the road-bridge plan, and the Corps of Engineers in February of 2010 denied a key wetlands permit for construction of those facilities, concluding that the oil field could be developed without roads, using an underground pipeline system. Conoco appealed the decision.

The permit denial stalled CD-5 development for years. The Corps in December of 2011 reversed its position and issued a permit after Conoco made some plan changes and successfully argued that maintenance would be easier to accomplish on an above-ground pipeline.

In his RDC speech, Johansen characterized the road and bridge as necessary for safety.

“If something goes wrong over on the other side at CD-5 ... people getting into distress and they need medical attention, or you get a fire, or you get an oil spill, we want to be able to respond very quickly to go out there and mitigate the consequences early.” Without road links between Alpine, CD-5 and, in the future, Greater Mooses Tooth, “it’s not a safe way to continue the development,” Johansen said.

Beyond CD-5, which is expected to be producing oil by the end of 2015, Conoco hopes to extend a 7.8-mile gravel road to Greater Mooses Tooth, according to the application it filed in July with the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land. The plan also calls for an 11.8-acre drill pad, a pipeline system and some small bridges.

Johansen said the state’s new system of low oil taxes, though not relevant to CD-5, makes Greater Mooses Tooth and additional National Petroleum Reserve development more attractive. Beyond CD-5, he said, the outlying oil prospects are economically challenging, he said.

But before Conoco moves to Greater Mooses Tooth and beyond that, perhaps, the Bear Tooth Unit, its plans for establishing CD-5 as a transportation gateway must clear a court challenge.

Two lawsuits filed earlier this year seek to overturn the wetlands-fill permit issued by the Corps to Conoco. The lawsuits, one filed by residents of the nearby Iñupiat village of Nuiqsut and the other by the Center for Biological Diversity, are scheduled for briefing in January at the U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

Environmentalists are troubled by the idea of yet another road.

“It’s a broken promise,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director of the Center for Biological Diversity, recalling how Alpine -- the anchor oil field in the area -- was touted in the 1990s as a new type of roadless development.

Spreading a network of roads westward threatens the wilderness qualities of the reserve, she said. “Once we start getting roads in there, the human footprint can spread pretty quickly,” she said. “I’d like it if we could stop it at the CD-5 point.”

Gravel roads created by oil operations have caused some of the most significant industry-related environmental problems on the North Slope, according to a report on cumulative oil-industry impacts issued by the National Research Council. The roads have disrupted hydrological patterns, disturbed habitat and created dust clouds, according to the report.

Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth(at)alaskadispatch.com