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  • Writer's pictureParker DePond

Working In an Arctic Oilfield

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

In the summer of 2023, I worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society as a nest-searching research technician.

While studying at Iowa State University, I met the acquaintance of a graduate student who grew up in Alaska, and her subsequent Ornithology was Arctic-based. After expressing extreme interest for many years she was nice enough to invite me to apply to work under her as she conducted fieldwork in Prudhoe Bay.

Prudehoe Bay is the northernmost oil field in the world and it sits at the end of the northernmost road in the Americas. When oil was discovered on the tundra it was first thought to be hard to transport but with ground braking on the trans alaska pipeline in 1974 it then became a reasonable endeavor.

This 800-mile-long pipeline stretches from the top of Alaska to the bottom coast and has transported Billions of barrels of oil in its life. Driving along this pipeline for 2 days boggled my mind at the amount of labor and materials that it took.

After 8 billion dollars and an employment boom that has never been seen before this 48" pipe has supplied the United States and East Asia with billions of barrels of crude oil over the decades.

However my job had nothing to do with the pipeline, it just fascinates me. My job deals with the 570 mi² (1476.29km²) land lease that BP once had and now Hillcorp has on the Arctic Tundra. Tundra is a cold desert not seeing much in the way of rain but experiencing unfathomable amounts of cold sunless days. With a growing season of only 60 days per year, plants have taken thousands of years to get established in their current state.

In an attempt to protect this delecate ecosyestem the oil field was built built on top of 'pads' 6ft (2m) tall gravel platforms that were dumped on top of the tundra. This was done for many reasons, the main one being water management.

In the summer for ~30 days, the surface melts and flows from polygon to polygon making an intricate web of erosion and marshes ^. With all the infrastructure suspended, it makes it easy to divert flows. When this freezes again in the winter this again shifts the top layer. But no matter the season the ground below remains frozen, in a layer of permafrost, sometimes reaching over 1,000ft (300m) thick. But when the oil comes out it can be upwards of 200 F (93 C) well above what is required to melt the ground and cause even more shifting thus all of the pipes moving oil between buildings on the field are suspended above ground in isolated pipes.

All of this infrastructure severely fragments the land. The research project that I was working on is attempting to answer the question does this have an effect on the thousands of birds who come to the tundra to nest every summer.

After watching security shoot a young brown bear with a rubber bullet it was obvious that some have become habituated to humans regardless of our attempt to haze them and scare them away. It was also obvious that the foxes enjoyed having a human dumpster in their backyard. This was made apparent by the copious amounts of blue food service gloves we found in their scat. The same gloves that we were required to wear before serving ourselves food.

However a conclusion has not been drawn for the birds yet. The grad student that I worked for is currently in the process of analyzing and publishing that paper but from preliminary results and anecdotal evidence, they appear to be doing well.

I say this with a happy, heavy heart because it is a good thing that these species haven't been affected but also it gives Hilcorp no reason to change what they are doing.

After speaking to the workers, every single one of them said that Hilcorp has been more relaxed on the restrictions and regulations than BP was, and "They seem more focused on making a quick profit." This makes sense considering that they are only leasing the land from the state and when they are 'done' with it it will return to the state.

The consensus on the field was that as technology increases they will find more ways to suck oil out until it's not profitable then Hilcorp will sell it to an even smaller company that will go bankrupt and defer to the state for clean up. Which won't happen because it has taken decades to build and with no monetary incentive it will probaby just blow into the Artic ocean. Leaving the two companies that used the land the longest guilt-free from any blame, monetary or moral.

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