In the 30 years since operators moved the first barrel of Prudhoe Bay oil down the trans-Alaska pipeline in 1977, improvements in technology have illuminated the path forward on Alaska’s North Slope.
Beginning in the exploration years leading to the 1968 discovery of the giant Prudhoe Bay field, explorers and their contractors faced unprecedented challenges in coping with the fragile tundra with its shallow overburden and deep layer of permafrost and the other effects of frigid temperatures that dipped as low as minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It was a place unlike any other from which oil had yet been recovered,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Yergin in commenting on the times. “The technology did not exist for production in such an environment. Normal steel pilings would crumble like soda straws when driving into the permafrost.”
More than 20 years later, Yergin marveled at the changes wrought by the industry with the aid of technology. “This industry … can, at $15 or $16 a barrel, do things that it thought it couldn’t do at $30 a barrel a decade ago. It’s an industry that’s being transformed by technology and computers. It’s an industry that can do much better at lower prices. It’s an industry that’s surprised itself.”
Over three decades, industry activity on the North Slope has mushroomed from just Prudhoe Bay, still North America’s largest oil discovery. Today, the slope is home to an industrial complex that stretches from the 1 billion-barrel Alpine field near the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in the west some 60 miles to the east where the Badami field produces oil just 23 miles from the border of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
For oil companies operating in Alaska’s Arctic, getting from 1977 to 2007 is an untold story of ingenuity and technological advancements. Operators and their contractors pursued development of oil fields on the North Slope with vigor and optimism. First, they pulled out the stops to ramp up crude production to a peak of 2.15 million barrels per day in the late 1980s and then to adopt and create new technologies in the aftermath of the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil spill and to cope with declining ANS production and the effects of exploration and production activities on the fragile tundra.
Between 1985 and 1989, for example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. worked jointly to restore the habitat along the 10-mile-long Endicott road. Researchers transplanted native grasses and successfully re-vegetated disturbed aquatic sites.
Innovation poorly documentedEach new problem spawned a solution, often involving new or improved technology. Increasingly innovative, the industry developed better and better ways to conduct economic, efficient and environmentally benign operations in the sensitive Arctic.
“There are just thousands of things. We’ve not well-documented the innovations up there,” longtime Alaska oil industry executive Jim Weeks said of the history of technological advancements on the North Slope. Today, Weeks is co-owner of two of Alaska’s few oil independents, Winstar LLC and Ultrastar LLC, but he remembers the 1980s when he worked as general manager of ARCO Alaska-operated Kuparuk, North America’s second-largest oil field.
At one point, recalled Weeks, “I was signing patent applications at a rate of two a month for the guys in ARCO’s coiled tubing group. “I got a kick out of those guys. We were doing some downsizing at the time, and they would say, ‘If you don’t want to have your job cut, you should stay close to the coil.’”
New technologies were developed or acquired and applied as the need arose in every discipline: exploration, development and production. Some technologies, such as the use of ice roads and ice pads for exploration wells and the Arctic Drilling Platform, are unique to the Arctic and were largely developed in Alaska.
Other advances, however, such as 3-D seismic-data acquisition, horizontal and multilateral drilling, measurement while drilling, low ground-pressure vehicles (rolligons) and remote sensing, were developed elsewhere and adapted for use on the North Slope.
Though some of these newer technologies have been used extensively, and the newer fields (such as Alpine) use them almost exclusively, older technologies are still integral parts of the older portions of the Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk fields.
If the entire Prudhoe Bay oil field had been built with today’s technology, its surface area would be 64 percent smaller than its current size, regulators say. Drilling pads would be 74 percent smaller and roads would cover 58 percent less area, while oil and gas separating facilities would take up half the space they currently occupy. Today’s fields also are constructed more quickly, at less cost and with less surface disturbance.
North Slope operators now use new seismic and remote sensing technologies, including satellite and aerial surveying, to improve their odds of finding oil and gas. This cuts the cost of drilling and lessens the environmental impact of exploration.
Drilling technologies have advanced until wells can be drilled in any direction with multiple completions from the same well bore that can reach different zones of a reservoir without disturbing surface ecosystems. The use of smaller diameter holes and new drilling techniques is also reducing waste, noise, visual effects, fuel consumption and emissions, regulators say.
Triumph at Colville RiverOperators continuously encounter and overcome new challenges with the help of technology.
A big hurdle, for example, at the Alpine field, which was built in the late 1990s, was the need to build oil and gas transmission pipelines across the Colville River, an ecologically important tributary that drains about 60 percent of the North Slope into the Beaufort Sea during breakup and is nearly a mile wide.
Alpine’s owners, with the help of contractors, succeeded in using horizontal directional drilling technology to lay 4,000 feet of pipeline 100 feet below the river bottom. The HDD technology had been used all over the world, but the Colville River crossing was its first application in the frozen ground of the Arctic.
TAPS encourages innovationAlyeska Pipeline Service Co., operator of the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline system, took a leadership role in developing technologies to improve the pipeline’s operations, especially in corrosion control, leak detection and petroleum transportation. From the pipeline’s first day of operation, June 20, 1977, Alyeska engineers and technicians have developed and adapted numerous applications that have established new and improved standards for safety and reliability.
After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, for example, Alyeska improved its tanker escort system by commissioning powerful tugboats equipped to prevent marine accidents by stopping oil tankers within seconds if necessary. These vessels also boast the latest in firefighting technology.
Government regulators and policy makers applaud the industry for its use of technology to reduce the impact of oil field operations on the environment, especially in waste management, and in minimizing the size of production facilities, the use of gravel, and the number of wells required to find and evaluate a new field.
“There have been many good examples on the North Slope of exactly what former Governor (Tony) Knowles calls ‘Doing it right,’” said Michelle Brown, former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and longtime environmental activist.
Brown, speaking to a group in 2000, cited as examples injection technologies that have virtually eliminated surface waste, insightful and effective research studies that help regulators track the effects of oil field activities, and advances that have greatly reduced the surface area required for oil field drilling and development.
Another example, remote sensing techniques, have improved early detection and tracking of spills, and have helped with recognition of key habitat for caribou, she said.
Technology no panaceaBut Brown and other regulators are quick to add that technology has not solved all of the industry’s problems in the Arctic. Nor has it removed all risk associated with oil field operations. The newer technologies have resulted in increased protection for the environment, but they have not eliminated the potential for accidents, they say.
Gov. Sarah Palin issued a statement in May 2007, acknowledging the role technology has played in North Slope operations, but also pointing out that innovation must be viewed as part of a bigger picture as the oil fields mature:
Still, a solid track record of forward momentum in technological improvements in Alaska suggests that innovators will continue to overcome challenges as they arise. New materials such as advanced titanium alloys and advanced metal-free composites will improve the reliability, performance, and corrosion-resistance, weight and cost-effectiveness of drilling and production facilities.
Advancements in biotechnology, nanotechnology and, more immediately, information technology, such as computing power, automation, remote sensing and miniaturization also could potentially transform oil field operations.