North Slope extending ever more into the tundra

Apr 27, 1998 02:00 AM

The Colville River Delta seems a world away from the hustle and bustle of the nation's biggest oil fields about 30 miles to the east.
This is where the Colville river fans out over the tundra to flow into the Arctic Ocean. Miles of open space, unmarked by pipelines or drilling rigs, separate the site from oil fields. Snowdrifts are crossed by fox pawprints, not industrial roads and gravel pads.
But soon the river delta will be part of the North Slope oil network. It is the site of the new Alpine oil field, under development by Arco Alaska, Union Texas Petroleum and Anadarko Petroleum.
Crews just finished the first of two winter work seasons inserting pipelines in the permafrost beneath the Coville. The buried pipeline system will ship light crude oil from Alpine, a 365 million-barrel field due to start production in 2000.
Alpine is - for now - the farthest west in what Alaska oil-industry supporters call a "string of pearls," a series of existing and emerging oil fields extending about 30 miles on either side of the Prudhoe Bay-Kuparuk oil-field complex. That spread, supporters say, will make it possible to spin off yet more oil fields that would otherwise be uneconomic.
"You string together ten 100 mm-barrel fields, and that's a lot of oil," Ronnie Chappell, a spokesman for Arco Alaska, said.
Alpine, too, could be the development doorway to the bordering National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA), the vast federal preserve on the west side of the Colville River. Established by President Warren Harding in 1923 for its oil and gas potential, the reserve has seen sporadic exploration since the 1940s, but no commercial finds.
The Alpine discovery, announced in 1995, was one factor that prompted the U.S. Department of Interior to consider oil leasing in the reserve for the first time since the early 1980s.
A decision is expected this summer on whether to allow drilling in the reserve's 4.6 mm-acre eastern corner, an area that oil boosters say could yield 5.5 billion recoverable barrels through modern technology.
Gov. Tony Knowles and other politicians in Alaska, a state heavily dependent on oil revenues, have high hopes for the NPRA frontier.
" I believe that the development of the NPRA is one of the most significant events in Alaska's oil patch since the discovery of Prudhoe Bay," Knowles told recently.
Environmentalists worry about what they consider the growth of industrial sprawl that has extended far beyond the initial development envisioned when the North Slope began pumping oil in 1977.
"Any time you take what has been wilderness and convert it into a several-hundred-square-mile industrial zone, there are going to be some environmental impacts," Allen Smith, director of the Wilderness Society's Alaska office, said.
"The development keeps spiralling," Sylvia Ward of the Northern Alaska Environmental Centre, said.
They are trying to block NPRA leasing, a project they claim is not needed when world oil markets are glutted.
The areais important for caribou and other wildlife, as well as waterfowl that migrate from as far away as Central and South America. Peregrine falcons nest in the Colville's rocky banks, which also hold the world's northernmost known deposits of dinosaur bones.
About a fifth of the world's Pacific black brant use NPRA's Teshekpuk Lake to molt, spending a month floating on the water, flightless, while they wait for new feathers to grow.
"It isn't just 'petroleum' that's in the name. It's 'reserve', too," Smith said.

Arco and its partners, which have leased additional state acreage adjacent to Alpine, say the new oil field will be high-tech and environmentally sensitive, establishing a model for NPRA or any other nearby oil operations.
There will be no permanent roads linking Alpine to other oil fields, for example, only temporary ice roads that will disappear in summer.
Those who have filed a lawsuit to challenge what they characterise as overly hasty issuing of construction permits, find little solace in those pledges.
"It's pretty clear that ice roads will become regular roads," Ward said.

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