The long wait for a federal wetlands permit for ExxonMobil’s proposed Point Thomson project appears to be nearly over.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it intends to publish a final environmental impact statement by the end of July.
A period of at least 30 days will then ensue before the Corps signs off on the last step — a record of decision, or ROD.
“The Corps anticipates that a ROD will be available in the fall of 2012,” the Corps said in a recent newsletter updating the Point Thomson EIS process.
The Corps is running well behind schedule for making a permit decision. It originally estimated it would render a ROD by August 2011.
Legal settlementFederal agencies considering whether to authorize a major project such as Point Thomson are required under the National Environmental Policy Act to prepare an EIS.
The remote Point Thomson oil and gas field is located along the Beaufort Sea coastline about 60 miles east of the Prudhoe Bay field. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is just east of the Point Thomson field.
ExxonMobil is the operator at Point Thomson. Other significant stakeholders in the field include BP and ConocoPhillips.
ExxonMobil is proposing to develop a project to produce natural gas condensate from three pads arrayed along the coast. The liquid condensate would be piped west for shipment down the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
On March 29, the oil companies and the state settled litigation that had clouded Point Thomson’s future for a number of years. The conflict sprang from the state’s frustration over lack of development at Point Thomson, decades after the field was discovered.
With the settlement done, the focus is now on the Corps and the wetlands permit, which is needed for project construction.
ANWR concernThe Corps released a draft EIS on Nov. 18, and took public comments for two months.
More than 600 individual comments were received, with about a third of them in support of the Point Thomson project with no remarks on the EIS itself, the Corps newsletter said. Many other comments “offered ideas on how to decrease impacts that would be caused by the project.”
The newsletter said “the proximity of the project to the Arctic Refuge continues to be a concern to the public and local, state, and federal agencies.”
State officials have expressed concern that too much was made in the draft EIS of the Point Thomson project as a neighbor to ANWR.
“It is disconcerting that the DEIS places so much emphasis on the proposed project’s proximity to ANWR and implies that the state should manage its adjacent lands as if they were part of the refuge,” Joe Balash, the state’s deputy natural resources commissioner, said in the Resource Development Council’s February newsletter. “We have serious issues with the appropriateness of the DEIS assessing such impacts when the project is located on state lands designated for oil and gas development, well outside refuge boundaries. Moreover, a huge portion of ANWR already includes over eight million acres that are designated as wilderness and ANWR also encompasses vast ecosystems that are specifically designed to protect fish, wildlife, and wilderness values. Therefore, there is no reason to extend ANWR’s reach beyond it boundaries.”
A walled oil field?The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was among those submitting comments to the Corps on the draft EIS.
EPA’s comment letter dated Jan. 17 said “additional analysis” might be needed on project alternatives, such as a possible relocation of field compressors to an inland pad.
“We recognize the extensive work by the Corps and the applicant to incorporate avoidance and mitigation into the project alternatives. Overall, we recommend the final EIS consider additional physical or operational changes that could further mitigate any adverse impacts,” the EPA wrote. “For example, some type of ‘natural’ barrier could be constructed to mitigate noise or visual impacts to coastal resources.”
The Corps said it has been reviewing and responding to comments received on the draft EIS, and “edits to the EIS are almost complete.”
Two other federal agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, each are expected to provide either a biological opinion or “correspondence letter” on potential project impacts to species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including polar bears, spectacled eiders and the bowhead whale.
In addition, the Corps says it is completing a review “to determine if the project is within the public interest.”
All of this will factor into the Corps’ permit decision, the ROD.
The ROD will be of high interest, as it will not only grant or deny the wetlands permit, but could impose “conditions, compensatory mitigation, and monitoring requirements” on the Point Thomson project.