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Vol. 12, No. 3 Week of January 21, 2007
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

KUPARUK ANNIVERSARY: Getting there and other challenges

1979-81: initial Kuparuk development, including KOC, CPF-1, first drill sites, temporary and permanent bridges

Kristen Nelson

Petroleum News

Getting there is half the fun — or challenge — could have been the motto for initial construction at Kuparuk.

First there were the sealifts and the struggle to get facilities modules to the North Slope in the short window each summer when there was an opening in the ice.

And once modules reached the North Slope, they had to be moved from West Dock at Prudhoe Bay, across the Kuparuk River, to the new field.

Initial Kuparuk facilities came in on three sealifts: The 1979 sealift brought in the warehouse, shop, vehicle storage and hanger. Workers were still installing those in the spring of 1980, along with doing piling work for modules and laying more gravel in advance of the 1980 sealift, which would bring in the permanent base camp, sewage and power facilities. Final facilities for initial production only arrived in the summer of 1981.

The ARCO Spark, the company newsletter, said workers finished installing Kuparuk’s 245-bed construction camp in the winter of 1979-80. Six development wells were drilled along with two exploratory wells to confirm more high-potential Kuparuk areas.

Project growing even as initial construction under way

In 1980 ARCO was also putting together an expanded long-range Kuparuk development, a multibillion-dollar plan to include several working interest owners in the expanded 200-section development. Three additional facilities (central processing facilities 2 and 3, and the seawater treatment plant) would be installed to meet Kuparuk pipeline capacity of 200,000 bpd.

“We have drafted a unit agreement and a joint operating agreement for the development which we’re sending to co-owners so we can unitize the field,” North Slope district Kuparuk engineer Jerry Pawelek told the ARCO Spark. “We hope to begin negotiations on this by late 1980 and we hope to have the field unitized by early 1981.”

ARCO would be field operator and peak capacity of 200,000 bpd was planned for 1986 — a big change from an original projection of 60,000 bpd.

Jim Weeks, head of the Kuparuk project group, told the ARCO Spark that expansion altered the facilities thinking — the permanent camp was upgraded and the capacity for both more drill sites and more processing facilities was added.

Pawelek worked unitization, reservoir engineering and facility design, while Landon Kelly, the Kuparuk operations manager, ran the camp and oversaw facility design and installation.

Just getting there a challenge

One of the challenges of developing Kuparuk was getting there from Prudhoe, Prudhoe being the connection to the Dalton Highway, known as the Haul Road, and initially the necessary connection to West Dock for module delivery, although Kuparuk later had its own dock facilities at Oliktok Point.

At spring breakup in 1980, culverts at ARCO’s $5 million Kuparuk River crossing washed out, temporarily closing the Kuparuk Spine Road — a road needed to move sealift modules to the field.

A temporary river crossing had to be in place by August to move 1,000-ton equipment-bearing modules. If the river crossing wasn’t ready ARCO planned to move the equipment overland in the winter.

Weeks, who headed the Denver-based Kuparuk project group which designed, constructed and installed Kuparuk facilities, told the ARCO Spark that three of the 12 culvert sections gave way June 9 and over the next four days the rest of the culvert sections collapsed into the Kuparuk River.

In a 2001 interview with Petroleum News, Weeks talked about the bridge problem — and about the challenges of getting Kuparuk developed.

“From the start, Kuparuk had … the reputation of being the down-to-earth, low-cost, sort of get-it-done-cost-effectively oil field,” said Weeks, the first project manager for Kuparuk. “That was our mandate from the company.”

“We developed a lot of new technology at Kuparuk, and we broke the paradigm that you couldn’t start something up in the same year you shipped it,” Weeks said.

Kuparuk River a challenge

The bridge over the Kuparuk River was a stumbling block.

The sealift was due in August 1980 and materials for Kuparuk, including the power plant, would have to go across the Kuparuk River. A bridge was needed. Weeks said plans were under way the previous fall, but permits didn’t come through until after freeze-up — and the gravel that would be used for fill already had ice crystals in it.

When the Kuparuk River floods at breakup, it becomes three miles wide. “We couldn’t justify building a three-mile bridge, so what we did is build a bridge on the main channel” with two low-water crossings on either side. Even the central bridge would be expensive, so they chose the type of “massive, corrugated culverts used for train tunnels.” The culverts were backfilled with compacted gravel.

“The actual strength that held the load up on the top of the bridge was not the culvert but the gravel,” Weeks said. The gravel was key — it pushed against the sides of the culverts, giving them the strength they needed.

“But when we built the bridge the backfill was frozen. You can pound on ice all day long and it’s not going to compact,” Weeks said.

At breakup, the gravel started to thaw out, the ice crystals melted “and the gravel lost its ability to push against the side shells of the pear-shaped culverts, and they collapsed.”

Weeks and Kelly purchased all the surplus 48-inch Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. pipe they could find in the state and used it to install a temporary bridge to meet the August sealift.

Permanent bridge needed

After getting the temporary bridge in place to meet the sealift, a permanent bridge was required before the field could be started.

Because of the strength of the Kuparuk River breakup, pilings for a permanent bridge were massive: 42 inches in diameter, so big they could not be made in the United States, they had to come from Japan, lashed to the deck of a ship because of their diameter and 80-foot length.

At Kuparuk, 54-inch holes, 100 feet deep, were drilled for the pilings, but the ship encountered a storm in the Gulf of Alaska and some of the pilings went overboard.

Without the pilings in place water would fill the holes at breakup and thaw them out and the holes would collapse.

The Japanese could get them more piling, but not until September or October, and the holes needed to be saved: they held a contest.

John Larson, an ARCO engineer, suggested using some of the surplus 48-inch pipe ARCO had bought for the temporary bridge, cutting the pipe into 15-foot lengths and putting a cap on each section.

Weeks said they hung a section of pipe into each hole, insulated the area between the 48-inch pipe and the 54-inch hole and backfilled. “We essentially put a plug in the top of the hole and froze it back in place,” Weeks said. Forty holes were saved. The replacement pilings came in and were put in during the fall of 1981, allowing startup to take place at the field.

Tired vehicles used for faster module delivery

Ground speed was another problem: crawlers used at Prudhoe Bay only traveled a half-mile per hour and it was 40 miles from West Dock at Prudhoe to Kuparuk, so the Kuparuk team used rubber-tired vehicles with trailers that moved at five mph.

“We got the modules set on the piling in October of ’81,” Weeks said, and things were going so well that he thought with overtime they could bring Kuparuk up that year. ARCO authorized “a couple million” for overtime and incentives, and with a construction force of 500 including 120 ARCO employees working around the clock the field started up three months ahead of schedule, on Dec. 13, 1981.

It was the first time that a major North Slope facility had been started up in the same year as the sealift.

There were other innovations: at Prudhoe each turbine got its own module. “We couldn’t afford that luxury” at Kuparuk, Weeks said, and multiple turbines were put in a single module.

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The early challenges

• Scott Kerr, now managing director of Norwegian Energy Co. in Stavanger, Norway, worked Kuparuk for ARCO three times in his career.

He was there in 1979-80, before field startup, logging the early Kuparuk 1D pad wells and said in an e-mail that there were many challenges at Kuparuk, including “the disposal of gas, which we were working in 1979-80 even before the field started producing.”

But the immediate problem in 1979 was keeping the trucks running.

Kerr said his first memory of Kuparuk is just before Christmas in 1979. “I was logging one of the D pad wells, D-4, I think, and the Engineering group had purchased some pick-up trucks in Anchorage to use on the slope.

“Operations did not have enough vehicles so we had to buy our own,” he said.

“Unfortunately the trucks were not winterized for use on the slope and if they were left to idle they would slowly freeze so we had to leave the logging truck every hour or so and drive the trucks up and down the road to warm the engines up.

“It was bitter cold out.

“What I remember was how still and absolutely beautiful it was out. The northern lights were out and the only lights around were from the rig and rig camp. I was totally alone but it was absolutely incredible.”

• Tom Wellman was at Kuparuk at construction — when Jim Weeks was struggling with the Kuparuk River bridge and he talked about that in the company’s 2001 anniversary video.

One day when they were drilling holes for the pilings for the permanent bridge he got a call from the construction manager, informing him that a caribou had fallen in one of the piling holes.

“Right away, of course, I’m suspicious,” he said, knowing the area would have been blocked off for the work.

“No, no,” the construction manager insisted, “he’s kind of wedged down in there, we think at about 50 feet.” They had tried dropping a rope down, but were afraid they’d kill the caribou trying to pull him out.

The guy was so serious, Wellman related, that he was starting to wonder how in the world he was going to explain the caribou to the regulators.

“And then he tipped me off,” Wellman said. “He said, ‘you know, we didn’t have any engineers on site and we’re not worried about lowering an engineer and losing the engineer — we’re afraid he’d fall on the caribou and hurt the caribou!’”

About then, Wellman said, he could hear Jim Weeks start to laugh in the background.

“It was all a setup just to get me riled.”

• Jack Walker was at Prudhoe in 1981. He said in a 2001 interview for the Kuparuk 20th anniversary video that he decided to drive over and see what was going on at Kuparuk.

“And of course the road restrictions weren’t what they are today and I guess the water was a little deeper than I expected trying to cross the river and I thought I was going to get swept down to the Beaufort Sea for a little bit, but we made it over there and looked around Kuparuk. And this would have been the summer before startup. … It was quite an experience.”

• Jeff Kewin “first got involved in Kuparuk in 1981, which was right about the time of unitization and when field development was just blowing and going,” he said in an interview for the 2001 20th anniversary video.

“My first trip up to Kuparuk, the road ended at 1A pad. And CPF-1 was kind of a combination between a bucket of bolts and the real thing. And there was just all kinds of activity going on — people running everywhere, projects groups, operations groups kind of coming in and taking over … the plumbing that had been fitted together to date.

“And the drillers were, of course, running wild and it was quite a heyday.”

Kewin said “it was a real privilege to be involved in Kuparuk from, almost from day one.

“And when we first started over at Kuparuk … we realized, if we’d come from Prudhoe, we’d made our first foray into the Arctic and it had been a great success.

“But when we came to Kuparuk we knew we were going to have to work under a different paradigm.

“And from day one Kuparuk was set up, the whole spirit of Kuparuk was to have fun at what you did.”