The primary objectives of this project are to develop analysis and management tools related to Arctic transportation networks (e.g., ice and snow road networks) that are critical to North Slope, Alaska oil and gas development.
Geo-Watersheds Scientific, Fairbanks, AK 99708
University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK 99775
Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho Falls, ID 83415
Oil and gas development on the North Slope is critical for maintaining U.S. energy supplies and is facing a period of new growth to meet the increasing energy needs of the nation. A majority of all exploration and development activities, pipeline maintenance, and other field support projects take place in the middle of winter, when the tundra land surface is snow covered and frozen. The winter operational season has been steadily decreasing over time while the number of exploration and development companies working on the North Slope has been increasing. The high cost of arctic operations, short winter season, and high levels of environmental protection result in significant daily operational costs. Developing analysis and management tools to help increase the number of operational days on the North Slope will result in significant cost savings to agencies and industry. A week of time can be equal to half the cost of a typical exploration well.
The winter season opens with the start of “tundra travel”, dependent on having six inches of snow on the land surface (coastal plain) and -5°C soil temperatures at a soil depth of 30 cm. Currently there are no methods to forecast this opening date, so field mobilization efforts are dependent on agency personnel visiting field sites to verify that snow and soil temperature conditions meet management criteria. Delays in field verification of tundra conditions and resulting mobilization efforts can reduce the winter operating season by weeks. Exploration and construction activities following the opening of the tundra-travel season do not generally proceed until ice roads and pads are completed—an effort dependent on lake ice and under-ice water. Ice chipping (on grounded lake ice) is a common road construction technique used to build stronger ice roads and reduce the time to construct them. Most water used for ice road construction comes from natural lakes and man-made reservoirs. Rivers provide insignificant water for construction of ice roads. Groundwater is generally saline and not used for ice road construction. At the end of the winter season, projects dependent on ice-road networks often have to cease operations early or risk personnel being caught out on ice-road networks with flooded stream crossings or unusable sections due to local melt. All of these challenges contribute to high support costs caused by shorter operational seasons (sometimes only 3–4 months per year) and high uncertainty in the timing of field mobilization.
This project will develop Nowcast/Forecast Tools to help industry and resource management agencies improve winter transportation network operations. The climate modeling methods used to develop these tools are in common use for other applications (i.e., weather forecasting, trucking, and freight industries) but have not been adapted to serve the unique needs of winter oil and gas transportation networks on the North Slope. Techniques resulting from this project will help improve field mobilization efforts and lengthen winter operating seasons. Also, state and federal land managers will be able to respond more efficiently by having real-time access to field conditions. These combined approaches will lead to more effective oil and gas transportation networks, cost savings for both industry and agencies, and improved environmental protection. Cooperating partners in this project include ConocoPhillips Alaska, Bureau of Land Management, Minerals Management Service, National Weather Service, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Alaska University Transportation Center, and Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
The scientific knowledge needed to address the transportation issues for oil and gas development on the Slope exists, but has not been developed into a set of tools useful to industry and management agencies. Optimizing North Slope transportation networks during winter operations will be critical for addressing increasing development pressures while maintaining a framework for environmentally-sensitive development. Understanding physical conditions is necessary to ensure protection of tundra, fisheries, and other natural resources on the sensitive tundra landscape. These tools will do more than describe the current conditions, they will provide the ability to forecast physical and environmental conditions so that management agencies can respond to snow cover and soil temperature audits more effectively, and industry can better plan water-use activities and the significant mobilization efforts that take place every winter season.
All the proposed research has been completed and the final report will be submitted soon.