Oil & Natural Gas Projects
Exploration and Production Technologies
Physical, Biological, and Chemical Implications of Midwinter Pumping of Tundra
The project was selected under a non-competitive, five-year cooperative agreement
with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF) to conduct arctic energy research
in two broad categories: fossil energy and remote electrical power generation.
The DOE Arctic Energy Office and UAF are collaborating with the energy industry
and state agencies to better identify Alaska's unique research needs.
Oil and gas development on the North Slope used ice roads to provide access
to drilling sites. Water to build these ice roads is pumped from tundra ponds,
which has resulted in some controversy, as there is little precipitation on
the North Slope. The goal of the project is to obtain baseline information about
the physical, biological, and chemical characteristics of North Slope lakes
in order to help assess some of the major questions related to lake water use.
University of Alaska
The study has set 15 percent lake water volume usage as a standard. Preliminary
assessment indicates that pumping 15 percent of the free water from these ponds
and lakes does not negatively impact the ecology of the tundra.
Establishment of the safe amount of water to be pumped from North Slope ponds
and lakes is vital to the continued development and production of oil and gas
and the economy of Alaska. The water-use issue will become increasingly important
as development proceeds in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) and
other areas west of Prudhoe Bay.
Constructing ice roads and pads increases oilfield operators' access for exploration
with little or no environmental disturbance. If a discovery is made and development
is warranted and approved, ice roads and pads can be used to reduce the use
of gravel roads and pads needed to support production facilities and pipelines.
Construction of ice roads and pads begins in December or January, when the tundra
is adequately frozen to support ice road construction. Traffic can continue
on ice roads through April, depending on weather conditions. Water supplies
are additionally needed to support facility operations.
Numerous questions exist regarding potential environmental consequences of such
pumping, particularly because of the little water flow on the North Slope except
during spring snowmelt. Possible effects include impacts to water balances,
aquatic organisms (including fish and invertebrates), and like-water chemistry.
In the fall of 2002, UAF's Water and Environmental Research Center, together
with other project performers, initiated a study to obtain baseline information
about the physical, biological, and chemical characteristics of North Slope
lakes in order to help assess some of the major questions related to lake water
use. Automated data collection stations on lakes provide hourly data that is
updated on the project's Internet site at hourly intervals.
The study requires a complete understanding of the watershed hydrology at pumped
and undisturbed lakes to quantify the potential impacts of water use. Continuous
monitoring of selected hydrologic parameters and periodic sampling of water
chemistry have been established for all test lakes (four pumped lakes and one
control lake). The project established requirements for the selection of lake
size, fish population present, watershed characteristics, and logistical access.
Criteria for evaluation included meteorological stations to calculate evaporative
and condensation water flux, monitoring influx and outflow of streams entering
or leaving ponds, groundwater flux and precipitation, monitoring changes in
pond water volume during spring recharge and summer evaporative drawdown, monitoring
the volume of pumped water, determining the spring snowpack water within the
pond watershed area, monitoring snowmelt processes, and real-time monitoring
of meteorological conditions, pond levels, and temperature.
Highlights of the 2004 season included completion of an annotated bibliography
of North Slope water withdrawal and tundra lakes (BP Exploration), addition
of a study lake at the Alpine Facility (ConocoPhillips), addition of a study
lake in NPR-A (Bureau of Land Management), definition of the importance of watershed
areas for determining recharge in the permit process, and the North Slope Borough
providing communication resources for new western lakes. .
In their analysis of hydrologic processes, researchers determined that snowmelt
and break up occur between April and June, and that recharge to lakes and ponds
occur during this period. In this analysis, they used water chemistry sampling,
meteorological analysis, soil thermostats, and a snow-water equivalent survey
for each lake basin. Project performers were able to verify and document recharge
during snowmelt for each lake.
The original geographic area was expanded, as two lakes in the NPR-A regions
were added. Conoco Phillips Alaska and BP Exploration contributed two new rafts
on the lakes for data collection.
Current Status (August 2005)
The next phase of the study is to determine an upper limit for water usage before
environmental impacts are detected.
Project Start: June 1, 2002
Project End: September 30, 2006
DOE Contribution: $900,000
Performer Contribution: $1,011,710 (53%)
Other Government Organizations Involved
Alaska Department of Natural Resources
NETL - James Hemsath (email@example.com or 907-452-2559)
UAF - Larry Hinzman (firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-474-7331)
Construction of ice roads is crucial for Alaskan North Slope operators to gain
access to the slope for exploration and development in an economic and environmentally
Midwinter testing and sampling of a North Slope lake.