Alaska officials expect a busy ice road construction season on the North Slope this winter, a sign of improving economic activity in the state's oil patch after years of layoffs and low oil prices.
Ice roads and snow roads used for exploration drilling and the cleanup of old wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska are key to the plans, said Melissa Head, who oversees the state's ice road permitting program.
"It's much more activity than we've seen in the past two years," she said. "I would call it slightly surprising given that oil prices really aren't super-high yet."
Based on plans from 10 companies, Head estimates close to 500 miles of snow roads and ice roads will be built. The work is expected to start sometime in December once the ground is caked with enough snow and sufficiently frozen to allow construction. The roads won't vanish until spring.
"It's not rocket science," said Dave Cruz, president of Cruz Construction of Palmer. "It's just sound engineering and cold weather."
Snow roads are created by rollagons, giant rigs with roller-pin wheels that pack down snow, creating depressions that fill in with windblown snow. The routes are repeatedly packed until they're thick enough to handle heavy-duty vehicles without scarring the tundra. Ice mined from frozen lakes, ground into chips, fills in low spots.
As for ice roads, they're built with layers of freezing water. Ice chips and snow are mixed with the water, creating a makeshift "asphalt."
There's enough ice road work this year to be shared among multiple oilfield service companies like Cruz Construction, he said.
Since oil prices dropped in 2014, the company has cut its winter workforce in at least half, by 200 or more employees, he said.
This winter Cruz Construction plans to build an ice road to support a well project at the Badami field. It's for Glacier Oil and Gas of Houston, Texas, he said. The work will include an ice bridge over the Sagavanirktok River.
The state expects the frozen road to extend 27 miles. Cruz Construction will employ about 100 people for a month to build the road, with multiple shifts working round-the-clock, he said.
The bridge will be several hundred feet long to cross the braided river, Cruz said. It will be built with layers of freezing water. In spring, an excavator will dismantle the bridge so it won't create an ice dam disrupting water flow.
"So it can thaw at a normal rate and there's no big plug on the river," he said.
Peak Oilfield Service has a "pretty busy winter" planned for ice road construction, said Eric Wieman, the company's vice president of North Slope operations. He said confidentiality agreements with oil companies prevent him from discussing specific projects.
He said there has been an uptick in ice road activity from the past two years. "It's certainly on the busier side from an ice road perspective," he said.
Much of the ice road construction this winter will be at the western edge of the Slope's industrial activity, with some work extending into the 23 million-acre petroleum reserve, Head said.
ConocoPhillips is expected to build about 90 miles of ice roads on federal land, including for the Willow exploration program in NPR-A, said Donna Wixon, with the Bureau of Land Management.
ConocoPhillips announced that find early this year, saying it could produce 100,000 barrels of oil daily.
The oil giant has heralded a big exploration program this winter. ConocoPhillips plans include building 60 miles of snow roads, Head estimated, related to a seismic exploration program assessing state and federal lands near the Colville River.
Also on the Slope, Accumulate Energy Alaska, from Australia, plans two exploration wells. And Armstrong Oil and Gas of Denver plans exploration drilling, too. Those projects add 45 miles of ice roads, the state estimates.
Another big project, involving Olgoonik Construction Services, contributes an estimated 170 miles of snow roads. The roads will access five old wells in NPR-A for remediation work.
The wells were drilled in the 1950s as the federal government assessed the oil and gas potential in the petroleum reserve, said Wixon.
The work is part of the federal government's program to clean up numerous "legacy wells" it left behind in the reserve. The work has included plugging wells, sealing them, and removing well structures from the surface.