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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: Environmental studies from the get-go

Company has been studying wildlife at Kuparuk since development days; swans targeted, caribou also a focus

Kristen Nelson

Petroleum News

Caryn Rea, senior staff biologist for ConocoPhillips Alaska, says there’s always been a biologist with the company — starting in ARCO days — on the North Slope. In the 1970s it was Angus Gavin, who “did a lot of initial work on the North Slope in conjunction with (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and others.”

At Kuparuk, the company has studied swans since the days of field construction. “ARCO did a number of studies looking at swan distribution within the proposed footprint of Kuparuk” because swans are relatively sensitive to disturbance and “we wanted to avoid areas near swan nests, as much as we could,” Rea said.

Swan monitoring has continued at Kuparuk, and the company does swan surveys in any area proposed for new development and continues the surveys after development.

The studies look at before and after, “the number of swans that are occupying the fields before you build and then you continue monitoring after.” The company is “not seeing any significant impacts to the numbers of swans returning to Kuparuk.” What they do see, she said, is natural variability — some years with higher counts of swan nests than others.

There are a lot of birds that use the Kuparuk area for nesting, but “we use the swans as an indicator species of the overall health of water bird and shorebird communities using the oil fields.”

“We’ve targeted tundra swans. … You can spot them from the air, they mate for life and … they come back to the same region year after year.”

People who work at Kuparuk are interested in the swans. Five satellite transmitters have been placed on swans, Rea said, and “the idea is to get a Web site up so people in Kuparuk can watch when the swans leave Kuparuk and travel cross country into the Carolinas.”

Caribou work expanded to Alpine

Early caribou surveys at Kuparuk were done by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Rea said, and then in the early 1990s the company took up that work, and has “been conducting annual surveys on caribou.”

The surveys used to be right after calving in late June, and then through July and August.

ConocoPhillips has expanded the program, she said: “We fly surveys before calving (and) after calving. We call these lifecycle periods that we try to capture because the behavior of caribou is different during the different cycles.”

In late June, after calving, the caribou are harassed by mosquitoes, “and so the concerns of agencies have been that the caribou can get to the coast.” Rea said studies have documented that caribou can get through the field to the coast, as well as documenting that caribou can get under the pipelines and move across roads.

“There have been 20 years of studies,” she said, and when documentation began the central arctic caribou herd was some 7,000; now it is more than 30,000.

The company has a number of fact sheets on North Slope birds and animals available on its Web page at

Workers alerted when caribou return to field

Environmental alerts are issued to workers each year at the beginning of summer when caribou return to the Kuparuk field.

About three weeks after calving the cows and their calves start moving through the field “and environmental compliance folks have always put out environmental alerts” and people slow down.

When Meltwater (south of Kuparuk) was under construction the company tried convoying traffic to see if that would minimize caribou disturbance “and it really didn’t pan out for us, but we tried it.”

The best solution seems to be to have vehicles slow down, she said. “The caribou will cross the road and go under the pipelines.”

Rea said the company has recently increased the height of new pipelines to an average of seven feet above the tundra. “Some of the central arctic animals stick around the oil fields in the winter,” and the increased height allows for snow.

Before the gravel hits the ground

The company begins gathering data in advance of development so agencies have enough information “to do a sufficient analysis of potential impacts and it also gives us the information so that we can work with our project teams.” The studies group then works with the engineers as they are laying out roads and pads. “If we can shift a road or change the orientation of the pad because of some sensitive habitat we’ve identified, we try to do that.”

There is also “post-development monitoring of key species,” she said. That includes caribou and tundra swans. Spectacled eiders are also surveyed because they were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1992.

“I’m guessing that Kuparuk has one of the best data sets for identifying preferred habitat for spectacled eiders on the North Slope.”

Hydrologists are on the ground in mid-May and caribou biologists start flying in May and then every couple of weeks thereafter. Bird and fisheries biologists arrive in June.

In addition, Kuparuk plays host to University of Alaska Fairbanks’ graduate students studying North Slope wildlife. “There’s been some work done on king eider breeding biology (and) there’s a project wrapping up now on ravens.”

The raven project has involved the whole field, she said, with guys at the production facilities telling the researcher raven stories. “They’re very aware of the ravens,” she said.

Also base for polar bear studies

Kuparuk is also a base for polar bear and grizzly bear studies. The pilot who surveys for grizzlies in the summer is based out of Kuparuk, Rea said.

And polar bear biologists were headed up to Kuparuk in mid-December to fly FLIR, forward-looking infrared, surveys. The FLIR is mounted on the otter and “has been used in the past to look for polar bear dens because … it can detect a heat signature.” That helps locate dens of bears that are not collared, and then U.S. Geological Survey biologists go out and confirm the den after the sow has left. It’s not 100 percent accurate, she said, but it’s a pretty good tool.

The biologists going up in December were with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and USGS. They were going to fly over areas where ice roads are proposed, looking along riverbanks. Those are “prime habitat for polar bears” because of the drifted snow.

The environmental coordinators, depending on the time of year, will issue environmental alerts or attend safety tailgate meetings to remind people that this is the time polar bears are out, “so be aware and follow your polar bear avoidance plan.”

There are two environmental compliance positions at Kuparuk — four people because of the rotation — so there is nearly always environmental compliance staff on site.

Environmental compliance folks have been at Kuparuk since the beginning, she said, and this is the model that was used when Alpine was developed and that will be used in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

It’s not just studies, “environmental awareness is part of the culture,” Rea said.

The compliance people do permit compliance: “Any permit that is issued for Kuparuk, whether it’s air, storm water, they are responsible for compliance. … Any permit we have, we’re responsible for complying with it, and so they educate whatever facility has an air permit, for instance, to make sure they understand what we need to do for reporting.”

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