FAIRBANKS - The Interior Department has approved ConocoPhillips' plan to build two oil production pads in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, but the company has not yet decided to go forward with the drilling.
The two new pads would be developed on land leased by the company in 1999 on the eastern edge of NPR-A, southwest of the existing Alpine oil field. Oil was discovered at the sites in 2001.
If the sites are built, it would be the first commercial oil development in the NPR-A, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
Rebecca Watson, the assistant secretary for land and minerals management, has approved the plan for the two pads, along with the accompanying pipelines and power lines.
Ed Bovy, spokesman for the BLM's Anchorage office, said drilling could begin by next winter. Oil from the Alpine Satellites could reach the trans-Alaska pipeline by the summer of 2008.
Natalie Knox, spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips in Alaska, said the company has not yet made a decision to develop the two pads and other Alpine satellites. That decision depends on the outcome of another permit review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on all five pads, she said.
In the final approval document, BLM required ConocoPhillips to reroute a road to lessen the environmental impact. The new plan will allow the road to enter a three-mile setback from Fish Creek that is supposed to be free of disturbances.
The agency has been criticized by environmental groups during recent planning for oil leases elsewhere in the reserve because it has not made such setbacks ironclad.
Bovy said the new route will require less gravel and fewer road miles, while staying on ridges and away from more sensitive wetlands.
The BLM also required ConocoPhillips to raise pipeline clearances to seven feet off the ground. Existing North Slope Borough regulations require lines to be five feet off the ground, Knox said.
The BLM also required the company to attach power lines to pipeline supports instead of stringing them on separate poles.
The reserve covers about 23.5 million acres of public land west of Prudhoe Bay. Estimates of oil reserves in the NPR-A range from about 6 billion to 13 billion barrels of oil.