Kristen Nelson, Petroleum News
Behind-the-scenes activity appears to be high on ConocoPhillips Alaska’s application to develop the CD-5 drill site across the Nigliq Channel from Alpine on Alaska’s North Slope.
That development has been stalled by federal permitting difficulties.
State and federal agencies recently told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that it was wrong in its determination that burying a pipeline under the Nigliq Channel of the Colville River was the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.
In April the Corps’ Alaska District requested supplemental comments on the permit application to develop CD-5. ConocoPhillips proposed a bridge over the Nigliq; the Corps disagreed, favoring a buried line.
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell weighed in, providing an engineering analysis by Louis Kozisek, P.E., of the State Pipeline Coordinator’s Office, favoring an aboveground vs. a buried pipeline crossing for the Nigliq Channel.
Federal agencies which are part of the federal-state Joint Pipeline Office — the Bureau of Land Management’s Office of Pipeline Monitoring and the U.S. Department of Transportations’ Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — said they had reviewed the Kozisek analysis and were in agreement with an aboveground crossing of the Nigliq Channel.
And Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes said Interior strongly favors an aboveground crossing of the channel.
In February 2010 the Corps’ Alaska District ruled that ConocoPhillips’s plan for development of its CD-5 satellite — a bridge over the Nigliq Channel carrying both a crude oil line and a road — was not the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.
The Corps said the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative was a crude oil line buried under the Nigliq Channel using horizontal directional drilling, no road between the CD-5 development and Alpine, where the oil will be processed, and an airstrip to service the CD-5 development.
ConocoPhillips appealed, and upon review, some issues were remanded to the Alaska district engineer in December.
Those issues included an airstrip added by the Corps in its preferred alternative. The review officer said “it is not clear why the alternative airstrip location was not identified to CPAI, and CPAI should be given an opportunity to address the alternative.”
Also remanded was the Corps’ rejection of ConocoPhillips’ argument that horizontal directional drilling under the Nigliq Channel was not practical on the basis of cost. The review officer said the Alaska District needed to “sufficiently document its consideration of the cost information available at the time of its decision.”
The HDD design issue was also remanded. The review officer said it was ConocoPhillips’ burden to demonstrate that the HDD alternative was “not logistically practicable,” but said the Alaska District’s “determination whether the project is logistically practicable is insufficiently supported and must be better documented.”
HDD the issue
The comments from state and federal agencies, including the governor, primarily addressed the Corps’ selection of HDD over an aboveground pipeline crossing the Nigliq Channel on a bridge.
Parnell told the Corps that ConocoPhillips’ preferred alternative “has the strong support of the several landowners and stakeholders in the area, including the nearby village of Nuiqsut. This rare coalition of supporters includes local communities, Native villages, Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporations, affected subsistence users, and the State of Alaska,” the governor said.
CD-5 infrastructure would provide a gateway for satellite developments within 25 miles of existing facilities at Alpine, he said, and create jobs, some of which could be filled by residents of Nuiqsut, which has a 33 percent adult unemployment rate. Parnell noted that the Corps’ regulations state that “the local and national economic benefits of a proposed project are important factors when considering permit approval.”
The governor said several state agencies conducted reviews of the CD-5 proposal, including the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which approved ConocoPhillips’ bridge plan, and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
He said that in contrast to the ConocoPhillips’ proposal, “the HDD alternative selected by the Army Corps in its initial permit decision has generated considerable concern within State agencies.”
The governor urged the Corps “to give serious consideration and deference to the State’s position that a road and bridge crossing across the Nigliq Channel is preferable to HDD.”
In a 14-page report Kozisek, the chief engineer at the State Pipeline Coordinator’s Office, compared the advantages of aboveground and HDD crossings of the Nigliq Channel and found that the aboveground crossing had an advantage — or was neutral — in all but one subject area.
Kozisek found that HDD had a weak advantage in the area of hydrology, including ice and scour.
However, the aboveground option had strong advantages in the majority: maintenance and repair; surveillance and monitoring; internal corrosion; reliability (certainty of design); and incident response and emergency access. It had a moderate advantage in external corrosion.
“This opinion considers the advantages and disadvantages of each mode from the point of view of environmental protection, using the perspective of a pipeline engineer,” Kozisek said in his conclusion.
“The decision is clear,” he said. “For the Nigliq crossing, the aboveground crossing offers the greatest overall benefits for environmental protection because it best accommodates the all-important need to mitigate spill risks at a waterway,” and thus provided the least environmentally damaging practical alternative.
BLM, PHMSA agree
BLM’s Office of Pipeline Monitoring and the U.S. DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, in a May 3 joint letter said the agencies, both participants in the federal-state Joint Pipeline Office, “affirm our support for a permit alternative that provides road and bridge access to CD-5.”
They noted that the agencies “comprise the nexus of Federal experience and technical expertise in the regulation, monitoring and oversight for oil and gas pipelines operating in the Arctic Environments of Alaska” and said their support for the road and bridge alternative is based on more than 30 years of experience monitoring the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, “and in the case of PHMSA, more recent experience regulating pipeline safety related to corrosion concerns on the North Slope. Our agencies have had many opportunities to evaluate what works and does not work in Alaska pipeline construction and subsequent pipeline operations and maintenance,” they said.
The agencies said they had reviewed Kozisek’s engineering opinion and “in general agree” with his conclusions on why the aboveground alternative is preferable.
Interior in discussions
Deputy Secretary of the Interior Hayes told the Corps that, at the direction of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar he has been communicating with ConocoPhillips Alaska, with representatives of “Native Alaskans with a direct interest in this project” and with several of the agencies involved, including BLM, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Based on these discussions, it is our view that this matter can and we hope will be resolved so that the project can go forward without further delay,” Hayes said.
He said the primary issue in the remand proceeding before the Corps is “whether the full record, including additional evidence being presented to the Corps following its initial decision, supports a finding that the underground pipeline alternative in the CD-5 matter is the ‘least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.’”
The record of decision that Interior prepared earlier for Alpine development concluded that a bridge would be the environmentally preferred alternative, Hayes said.
Some parties, including Fish and Wildlife and EPA, “raised concerns about potential negative environmental consequences that could be associated with a proposed bridge,” and based in large part on those concerns, the Corps declined Interior’s recommendation and found that HDD, using an underground pipeline, would be less environmentally damaging, and would be practicable.
Hayes said that in the proceedings following the Corps’ decision new attention was directed on the HDD alternative, “and there is important new evidence that should be considered,” in particular the “extensive analysis on the substantial risks associated with an underground pipeline such as that proposed, and the use of HDD in this area,” prepared by the State of Alaska.
Hayes said the new information on environmental risks associated with buried pipelines “is particularly compelling in light of the recent experience with the Trans Alaska Pipeline System, in which a buried portion of the pipeline developed an undetected leak.”
“An undetected leak in a pipeline underlying the extremely sensitive Colville River could lead to environmentally catastrophic results,” Hayes said. And, based on Interior’s experience with last summer’s “failure of previously assured oil and gas technology in the Gulf of Mexico,” the department feels strongly that an aboveground crossing, which can be “visually inspected and monitored with confidence, is an inherently less damaging alternative for this location than an underground pipeline.”
Hayes said that discussions with Fish and Wildlife and EPA, “we believe that environmental concerns raised about the bridge crossing can and should be addressed and mitigated. Toward that end we are moving forward with additional discussions with these parties to outline a mitigation approach to accompany the application that is before the Corps.”
Alaska District Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Pat Richardson told Petroleum News July 27 that there is no fixed timeline for a decision. She said the Alaska District is going through the administrative record and addressing points they were asked to examine in the remand. Part of that process involved additional information from ConocoPhillips and from agencies and Richardson said the Corps has requested and received that information, and is now evaluating the additional information to make a decision.
Republished with the permission of the Petroleum News