It’s across the Colville and into the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska for ConocoPhillips Alaska — at last. A bridge crossing of the Nigliq Channel of the Colville River was the preferred alternative in the 2004 final environmental impact statement for Alpine satellite development, but it took years for the company to get alignment from the North Slope Borough, the adjacent community of Nuiqsut and major federal agencies.
It came together Dec. 19 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit for CD-5, the Alpine satellite which will be the first development built in NPR-A.
“ConocoPhillips is pleased that the Corps of Engineers granted the Section 404 permit for Alpine satellite CD-5,” ConocoPhillips Alaska spokeswoman Natalie Lowman told Petroleum News in an email.
“Over the coming months, we plan to evaluate and incorporate the terms of the permit into our project plan as we attempt to progress to full sanctioning in the coming year,” she said.
In addition to the Clean Water Act permit from the Corps, the project still needs to obtain a Rivers and Harbors Act Section 9 bridge permit from the U.S. Coast Guard, Lowman said, “and a small number of other permits that are not viewed as controversial.”
“Depending on the timing and specific details of the Section 404B permit issued, other permits already received may need to be amended or extended,” she said.
Changes in plansConocoPhillips applied for the Corps permit in 2005, but withdrew it in early 2008 when it couldn’t reach agreement with Nuiqsut and the North Slope Borough on where the bridge would be placed.
When the company applied again, in May 2009, it had reached agreement on the development with Kuukpik Corp., the Village of Nuiqsut and the North Slope Borough. The bridge was moved some 3 miles south to just north of the CD-4 pad. ConocoPhillips told the Corps that “the current bridge location incorporates local knowledge provided by Kuukpik shareholders for the purposes of reducing ice jamming, providing for high and stable banks, avoiding popular subsistence fishing areas, and avoiding historic landmarks.”
A pipeline from CD-5 to the Alpine central processing facilities would go over the bridge.
But in February 2010 the Corps denied the permit, based on objections from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, both of which argued that the Colville River Delta was an aquatic resource of national importance, a designation which trumped local interests.
The Corps said there were less environmentally damaging practicable alternatives, specifically a pipeline under the Nigliq Channel, using horizontal directional drilling.
State, delegation objectThe State of Alaska and the state’s congressional delegation objected to the Corps’ 2010 denial; ConocoPhillips appealed the decision, which was subsequently remanded to the Alaska district on several issues, among them horizontal directional drilling for the pipeline.
In the Dec. 19 decision the Alaska district engineer, Col. Reinhard Koenig, authorized the ConocoPhillips Alaska proposal “with special conditions to ensure that all appropriate and practicable steps to minimize potential adverse impacts to the aquatic ecosystem have been taken, and to ensure the project would not be contrary to the public interest.”
Koenig said ConocoPhillips’ proposal has been determined to be the LEDPA, the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative, “based on other environmental consequences of pipeline monitoring, leak detection, and spill response.” He also said the company’s proposal for road access to CD-5 “is the only alternative that would provide year round spill response access.”
Koenig said that he reconsidered the environmental consequences associated with the roadless scenario based on information presented during the remand by ConocoPhillips, the State Pipeline Coordinator’s Office and the Federal Joint Pipeline Office. Those consequences are related to pipeline corrosion and monitoring, leak detection, spill prevention and spill response.
While environmental concerns around these issues were presented in the first review, state and federal agencies “with recognized expertise in pipeline monitoring have provided information and emphasized these concerns” in the remand, Koenig said.
He said ConocoPhillips did not provide information in the initial review “that clearly and convincingly demonstrated that alternatives involving HDD would not be practicable or would not have less adverse impact on the aquatic ecosystem.”
Koenig also said that in the initial review CD-5 was compared to CD-3, with ice-road access from December through May. But that isn’t true for CD-5 because the Nigliq Channel must be frozen before an ice road can be constructed, and the ice road probably wouldn’t be available before Feb. 1. The operational comparison between CD-3 and CD-5 in the initial review was also incorrect, he said, because CD-3 is a seasonal drilling operation; CD-5 would be year-round.
Changes in planKoenig said ConocoPhillips has made changes in the plan to minimize impacts in the 100-year and 500-year floodplain by adding a bridge and reducing the width of the bridges.
There are now four bridges: the 1,405-foot Nigliq Channel bridge; the 277-foot Nigliagvik Channel bridge; the 317-foot Lake L9341 bridge; and the 250-foot Lake 9323 bridge (or swale bridge, added to the project).
In the 2011 changes, ConocoPhillips added the swale bridge, narrowed all the bridge widths to single lanes (from 30 feet to 22 feet), which reduced the number of pilings in each pier group by one, and narrowed the road width for most of its length in the Colville River Delta from a top width of 32 feet to 30 feet.
The Corps said ConocoPhillips’ revised plan would have the least amount of total fill in waters of the U.S. including wetlands of any of the alternatives, 58.5 acres, including six miles of road. ConocoPhillips has proposed measures to minimize adverse impacts to the aquatic ecosystems and avoid fill in wetlands, the Corps said, including: best management practices during construction; locating road alignment on higher ground where possible; reducing the number of pilings in the bridge pier supports; using 48-inch culverts in the Colville River Delta to maintain sheet flow conveyance during spring break up flooding; adding the swale bridge; and narrowing the road and bridges in the delta to minimize the footprint.
Proposed construction scheduleThe Corps said that under the proposed construction schedule, the gravel road, production pad, L9323 Bridge, L9341 Bridge, Nigliagvik Bridge and Nigliq Channel bridge piers will be completed in the first winter. Final road compaction and grading, and installation of bridge decking for the L9341 and Nigliagvik bridges would be completed in the first summer.
Installation of vertical support members, pipelines and completion of the Nigliq Channel bridge superstructure and decking would be done in the second winter, with surface facilities at the CD-5 pad proposed to be substantially completed by the end of the second year.
The bridges would not be capable of transporting drilling rigs to the CD-5 drill site so ice roads would be required for rig transport.
Support for decisionState and federal officials supported the decision.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the decision cleared the way for the first production from NPR-A.
“NPR-A has long been cited as an example of the federal government’s commitment to domestic oil production, but in reality the gates to NPR-A have been locked by bureaucracy and regulatory red tape. The Corps’ revised decision finally unlocks those gates.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, called it “great news for federal oil and gas development in Alaska. After years of hard work and negotiations, this project can finally move forward.”
Alaska Congressman Don Young, a Republican, said he welcomed the announcement by the Corps, but “the truth is that approval of the CD-5 project is long overdue and frankly should have been green lighted the first time.”
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell commended the Corps “for finally moving this vital project forward. The potential new production from the NPR-A can lead to more jobs for Alaskans,” he said, as well as reducing dependence on foreign oil.
The U.S. Department of the Interior helped negotiate an agreement in principle on the project reached earlier in December by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and ConocoPhillips.
Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes applauded the Corps’ decision to permit the CD-5 development and commended the Corps for working with ConocoPhillips and federal agencies “to find a way for this important project to proceed in a safe and responsible way.”
He said Interior would continue “to work with industry to develop the abundant resources in the NPR-A,” protecting critical habitat for birds and caribou and “safeguarding Native Alaskans’ subsistence needs while guiding sensible, productive energy exploration and development that will help drive America’s energy economy.”
The Bureau of Land Management manages NPR-A; it was the lead agency in the EIS for Alpine satellite development.
Bud Cribley, BLM Alaska state director, called the Corps’ decision “a critical milestone in the development of the infrastructure needed to explore, develop and deliver oil and gas resources from the NPR-A,” and said the permit “shows industry and government can work together to find sensible solutions that allow safe and responsible development.”