ANCHORAGE - The state might allow oil exploration equipment onto North Slope tundra weeks earlier than usual this winter based on a federally funded study of how the gear affects delicate arctic terrain.
Gov. Frank Murkowski announced the preliminary outcome of the study, and its practical implications, at a dinner meeting of oil field contractors last week in Anchorage. He said the state needs to "responsibly lengthen the season" for oil exploration.
The announcement cheered oil company representatives and contractors, who note that a warming trend has roughly halved the winter season for driving bulldozers and other heavy tracked and wheeled vehicles on the tundra. The machinery typically is part of seismic caravans that can cover many miles of ground.
Most exploratory work is done in winter when the tundra is frozen and covered with snow, shielding it from damage.
Larry Houle, general manager of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, which represents oil field contractors, said the governor's announcement suggests the state might open tundra travel in mid-December, as much as three weeks earlier than usual, giving oil explorers more time to work.
"It is encouraging," he said. "It might mean, for example, a whole exploration program can be completed in one season rather than two."
Environmental watchdogs say Murkowski is jumping the gun. The state-managed study, financed largely with $270,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy, has produced only one year of data.
"We don't believe that's a long enough study to be conclusive," said Kelly Hill Scanlon of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks.
Bob Loeffler, a director in the state Department of Natural Resources, which performed the study last winter, emphasized that the test data has not been fully analyzed and that university scientists have not completed peer review of the work.
However, he agreed with Murkowski's assertion that preliminary results look good for extending the tundra travel season.
Since 1970, Alaska officials generally have followed guidelines requiring that the ground be frozen a foot deep and covered with 6 inches of snow before opening the tundra to traffic.
Those standards were not based on formal scientific analysis, and they are not written into state law or regulations, Loeffler said. Rather, they are general guidelines for the mostly state-owned land in and around the North Slope oil patch, he said.
Although some winters are colder than others, a warming trend had cut the general tundra travel season from 208 days in 1970 to 103 days in recent winters, Loeffler said.
The study involved setting up two test sites, one on the coastal plain near the Prudhoe Bay oil field and another farther south toward the foothills of the Brooks Range. Testers drove equipment over the sites throughout the winter, then rechecked the sites after the spring thaw, Loeffler said.
The equipment, donated by members of Houle's Alliance, ranged from a small Tucker Sno-Cat to a front-end loader to a heavy Caterpillar bulldozer. Drivers took the vehicles through various maneuvers including figure-8s likely to cause the most damage, Loeffler said.
Scanlon said she visited the coastal test site over the summer.
"You could definitely see bulldozer marks on the ground," she said. That was expected because equipment was driven there in November, earlier than it normally would be, she said.
Federal officials who manage emerging oil provinces, such as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska west of Prudhoe Bay, typically open tundra travel earlier than state officials, said Dawn Patience, spokeswoman for Conoco Phillips Alaska, the state's top-producing oil company and most active explorer.
"We're pleased to see the state take a scientific approach to the tundra-travel issue," she said.
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