Climate change is poised to thaw and undermine the soil beneath ConocoPhillips’ proposed Willow oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, making its rigs and roads vulnerable to the same global warming the project will be aggravating.
The project will be so vulnerable to climate change that ConocoPhillips plans to use chillers to keep the Arctic tundra frozen beneath its roads and oil drilling pads, according to the Bureau of Land Management’s environmental review of the plan published Thursday.
“Where necessary we use cooling devices (thermosyphons) that can chill the ground enough in the winter to help it remain frozen through the summer,” ConocoPhillips Alaska spokeswoman Natalie Lowman said.
The Willow oil project, slated to be built over 30 years on Alaska’s North Slope, is vulnerable to a rapidly warming Arctic because it will depend on ice roads, ice bridges, and frozen permafrost that forms the foundation of its infrastructure.
But the region will warm by an average of 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the life of the project, rapidly thawing the frozen Arctic tundra around the drilling rigs, and shortening the winter season during which ice roads and bridges will remain frozen, the land bureau said.
The land bureau’s analysis says the company plans to adapt its project to melting Arctic conditions by building thickly dug gravel roads and drilling pads to offset damage from thawing and shifting permafrost.
But the analysis warns the gravel roads themselves could contribute to further permafrost melting because road dust, where it settles, hastens the pace of soil thawing. And gravel used to fill in collapsed soil can transfer the radiant heat from above the ground and melt the ice beneath it.
Government Approval Likely
Stilll, the land bureau is poised to approve the project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska as part of the Trump administration’s fossil fuels-focused energy and deregulatory agenda.
ConocoPhilips Alaska expects to produce a total of up to 590 million barrels of oil through at least 2050 as part of the Willow Master Development Plan, according to the land bureau’s proposal.
The project would represent a small fraction of total U.S. oil production compared to current levels. The U.S. produced 4.47 billion barrels of oil in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The land bureau is giving the public 30 days to comment on the final plan, which has already drawn criticism from environmentalists worried about its effects on polar bear and caribou habitat. The land bureau didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The plan for Willow calls for the construction of 495 miles of ice roads, an ice bridge over the Colville River, and a heavy reliance on the firm permafrost in order to build oil drilling pads, gravel roads, and air strips, the land bureau’s analysis says.
But global warming’s rapid heating of the Arctic is threatening permafrost across the entire region, scientists say.
“We are really seeing accelerating rates of permafrost thaw beyond what permafrost scientists have been expecting,” said Merritt Turetsky, a permafrost scientist and director of the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.
Twice as Fast
Human-caused climate change is warming the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of North America, and the region is poised to be transformed over the 30-year lifespan of the Willow project. Melting permafrost is one of the Earth’s most acute threats from climate change because the thawing tundra releases large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, compounding global warming.
In its analysis, the land bureau says temperature rise puts at risk the permafrost on the North Slope that the Willow project depends on. And oil drilling itself as part of the Willow project will contribute to the Arctic’s melt, the land bureau says.
“Well casings from production and injection wells would transfer heat to the surrounding soils and could change the thermal regime of the permafrost and create areas of deep thaw,” according to the bureau’s analysis.
The analysis says global warming is melting the soil beneath the tundra unevenly, creating unstable, hollowed-out ground called “thermokarst.”
“Permafrost thawing and uneven settlement could cause damage to infrastructure such as gravel pads, roads, and pipelines,” the analysis says. “A shorter ice road season would affect the transport of materials and personnel that depend on ice roads.”
Land bureau spokesman said Derrick Henry said that oil drilling is “vital” to ensuring that America meets its energy needs. The agency will ensure that ConocoPhillips will adequately consider “challenges related to the effects of climate change.”
Quick Arctic Thaw
Scientific research shows that the Arctic is on track to lose 2.5 million square miles of permafrost by the end of the century. Permafrost keeps the land solid, and when it thaws, it can collapse suddenly and then swell with newly created lakes and wetlands, according to a 2019 paper in the journal Nature.
The rate of thaw is slower on the North Slope, but complete thaw there won’t be far behind central Alaska, she said.
ConocoPhillips believes permafrost thaw won’t happen quickly in its corner of the Arctic.
“Climate change is affecting the Arctic and our operations, but these effects are incremental,” said Lowman, the ConocoPhillips spokesman, adding that the company will monitor changes to the depth of frozen soil.
But the Willow project will make the impacts of climate change worse in a region more heavily affected by global warming than anywhere else, said Nicole Whittington-Evans, the Alaska program director for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.
In central Alaska, “there will be no more permafrost left to monitor soon,” Turetsky said. “I now think that within this decade, it’ll likely be gone.”