The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last Friday quietly approved an 8-mile access road for a drilling project that would be the first to produce oil from the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A).
The Army Corps' record of decision allows ConocoPhillips Co. to continue pursuing its Greater Mooses Tooth project, known as GMT1, to drill up to 33 development and injection wells at an 11.8-acre drilling pad in the northeastern corner of the 22.5-million-acre NPR-A. The Bureau of Land Management still must give final approval for the project.
The Clean Water Act permit "incorporates all practicable avoidance and minimization measures" and allows up to 73 acres of waters and wetlands to be filled, the corps said.
"The authorization includes special conditions to further avoid and minimize potential adverse impacts and to compensate for unavoidable adverse impacts to the aquatic ecosystem," the corps said.
The approval follows BLM's decision last October to issue a final environmental impact statement (EIS) on the project offering tentative final approval of the project.
BLM's EIS selected alternative B, which would reduce the project's impact on subsistence hunting and fishing in areas used by the nearby Native village of Nuiqsut. Environmental groups are skeptical of the need for a permanent road and have urged BLM to strongly consider roadless and seasonal drilling options. But if a permanent road is to be approved, environmentalists favor alternative B, arguing it better protects Fish Creek.
But the corps permits would authorize Conoco's preferred route, which was analyzed by BLM as alternative A. The corps said that alternative is the "least environmentally damaging practicable alternative."
That alternative is also preferred by Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (R) and the North Slope Borough, the county-level government representing the North Slope.
BLM said the corps' permit decision will inform what alternative it ultimately selects in its own record of decision. A BLM spokesman said there was no immediate timeline for a final decision.
Conservationists have long opposed plans for the gravel road, arguing that it could lead to development of an ecologically damaging network of roads and encourage future exploration deeper into the petroleum reserve. BLM's review of the Conoco project is seen as a bellwether for future projects as industry moves westward into the mostly untapped reserve.
"We have not had a chance to review this decision and the reasons behind it, but we are disappointed that the Army Corps of Engineers has chosen to encroach on Fish Creek, an important watershed and subsistence resource for local communities," said Nicole Whittington-Evans, who directs the Wilderness Society's Alaska office.
In a Jan. 9 letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the heads of five major environmental groups said BLM must retain a protective buffer for Fish Creek, calling it an important tributary to special protected areas within the reserve.
"The Fish Creek area would be needlessly damaged under Alternative A by the construction of multiple bridges and other infrastructure," said the CEOs of the Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club and Conservation Lands Foundation. BLM must protect the creek to "uphold the integrity" of its 2013 integrated activity plan for the reserve, they argued.
BLM's record of decision could include additional environmental mitigation measures, including proposals for legacy well remediation, aircraft and traffic limits to minimize impacts on caribou and an agreement giving local Native communities access to the road.
If ConocoPhillips receives the necessary permits and decides to move forward with the GMT1 project, construction could begin during the last quarter of 2015, with first production likely two years later.
The project could add 30,000 barrels of oil per day to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System by late 2017.
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