Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Arctic Ocean

Close-up of a drilling rig. (Ooooo. Ahhhh.) Supposedly the oil companies agree to return the tundra to its natural state once they've finished their work here. It's difficult to see here, but the tundra segments into "ice wedge polygons" from the freezing and thawing cycle.

Slept right through that early wave of diesels outside my window this morning. After loading up for the return journey, checked out of my room at 11:00 and rode over to the Arctic Caribou Inn to see about that "Arctic Ocean Tour."

I would have to wait until 1:00. So, I "snuck" back into the Prudhoe Bay Hotel and helped myself to lunch, slouching down in my seat as the desk manager walked by.

Before we could embark on the tour, we were gathered into a "classroom" and asked to prove our identity. No terrorists would be permitted on the tour. We then were forced to watch an oil company PR video. Actually, it WAS pretty informative.

Joined a cast of characters aboard a rattle-trap bus for a wild ride around the oilfields and out to the bay, guided by a former oilfield worker and police officer. Met a couple of fellows from Portland; Brian Hinsa and his buddy are big kayaking enthusiasts; and "Janet" from Rochester, who was just out here visiting with her mother!

One of the Oregonians asked "aren't you afraid of being 'jacked' in Central America?"

"I'm more afraid of my own stupidity and carelessness."

The little "block houses" are actually individual wells, with a large "manifold" building on the right. The wells pump to the manifold, where flow is measured and controlled, and then transferred to the pumping plant.

I learned many things, such as...

There are about 2,000 people at Coldfoot Camp, but no year-round residents. Everyone rotates in and out on a regular basis.

The oil rigs are usually only moved in winter. They move about 1 mph. Everything is built up on gravel pads to assure that heat from equipment, buildings and vehicles doesn't melt the permafrost below.

Big non-native plant on the tundra.

Minus 68° Fahrenheit was the coldest recorded temperature here (minus 151 with the windchill factor.) They get about 18 inches of snowfall annually, and about 7 inches of total precipitation, less than Phoenix, Arizona.

Companies represented in the camp, in addition to BP and Phillips, include Halliburton (Mr. Cheney's old friends), Schlumberger, Baker Hughes, Peak Petroleum and Alaska Clean Seas. Contracts alternate between Halliburton and Schlumberger.

In 1957, 20 million acres of North Slope land was made available to commercial gas and oil leasing.

ARCO discovered oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1967. The Dalton Highway was built in 1974 (and opened to the public in 1994.) By 1977 the pipeline was complete and oil flowing to Valdez, on Prince William Sound, the nearest port with year-round access.

In 1980, the Arctic National Wildlife Range was redesignated the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

ARCO later tried to sell the field rights to British Petroleum (BP), but the sale was blocked by Conoco-Phillips, which later bought it, then contracted BP to operate the field!

Originally, it was estimated the field would be exhausted by the year 2000. But technological developments, including the invention of "spiral coil tubing", allows drills to bore through the well casing of depleted wells and branch off at an angle, tapping into pockets missed by the original well.

Prudhoe Bay oilfield is presently pumping one million barrels per day south to Valdez. Prudhoe is the largest site, however there are 17 satellite sites, the newest of which is called "Alpine."

Drill site #1, the original, has a large footprint (100 to 150 feet between well houses) and the wells went straight down. From the well houses, the oil flows to a manifold building where its flow is controlled and measured. From there, it moves to a separator building. This separates out oil, water and gas. Of the gas, 85% is reinjected into the well to retain underground pressure (wells here are all pressure wells, not pump wells.) A small amount of gas is used at Prudhoe.

BP and Phillips are the primary stakeholders at Prudhoe Bay. The property is state-owned and the oil companies have signed contracts assuring that the tundra will be restored upon completion of the project.

BP's "Endicott Site", using new technology permits the wellheads to be only 15 feet apart, thus the site has a much smaller footprint. The site uses directional drilling which can go 3 miles offshore, and 10,000 feet deep. Now, and entire oilfield site can have the footprint of one of the early wells.

Drilling waste is pulverized in a ball mill, diesel is added, then it is re-injected into the ground.

They have it all figured out: if ANWR is opened to drilling a pipeline would connect Endicott, Badami(?) and ANWR.

We had a 15-minute stop at the Arctic Ocean (I had to take our guide's word that this gravel bar jutting out into a frozen bay was indeed the Arctic; there were no signs proclaiming the fact.) Everyone took their official Arctic Ocean photo and soon the honking horn summoned us back. No one went for a swim.

That's the Arctic Ocean behind me. No, REALLY. (That's real ice!)

Okay. Now, the Arctic Ocean without humans.

Was it worth $37? Well, the memory will outlast my concern for $37.

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