COLVILLE RIVER, ALASKA — As they do every summer, the peregrine falcons will soon be back from southern latitudes to nest in the rocky banks of the Colville River here. The caribou will paddle across, and the residents of Nuiqsut, a nearby Inupiat Eskimo village, will fish the frigid channels.
In an effort to minimize disturbing life on the Colville, two pipelines are being built 100 feet under the river as part of an intricate project to pump crude from the Alpine oil field, the first major petroleum discovery since 1990 on Alaska's North Slope.
Crews have been working around the clock since February, boring from both sides of the river and shuttling in trucks across the thick ice to insert the pipelines. "We picked this pipeline route specifically for the fact that we could do this with only one [river] crossing," says John Swanson, who manages the Colville boring project.
There is an enduring tension between oil development and nature preservation in Alaska. But development of this oil field, in a way that is sensitive to the nation's northernmost tundra and the wildlife here, could be pivotal to future petroleum projects on the North Slope - and Alaska's economic prosperity. Four out of five dollars in the state's operating budget come from oil revenues.
The planned 34-mile pipeline at Colville will ultimately link the new Alpine field to existing oil sites to the east, near Prudhoe Bay. It will be erected with the least possible disruption to the open landscape, say oil officials.
To critics, Alpine is the westernmost - but not the last - in a series of projects called "the string of pearls" that threatens to create Arctic "industrial sprawl." "We've seen it grow and grow and grow," says Sylvia Ward of the Fairbanks-based Northern Alaska Environmental Center.
Indeed, the major North Slope operators, Arco and British Petroleum, recently unveiled plans to dramatically boost spending in the region. Most promising to industry supporters, and most troubling to critics, is the plan to expand west of Alpine into the vast National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, the newest oil frontier.
Spurred by the Alpine discovery and new production technology, the US Department of Interior is considering oil leasing in the reserve's 4.6-million-acre eastern corner. A decision is expected later this year.
While environmentalists fret about impacts of new development, oil companies are proud of technological advances that make drilling lighter on the land.
There will be no permanent road to Alpine, for example. Instead, the only gravel "footprint" will be a short road between the two drill pads - far fewer pads than what were needed in the past for similar-size oil fields - with a wide spot in the center to serve as an airstrip for shuttled work crews. The temporary ice road that now links the field to the Kuparuk complex will disappear with the summer thaw, they say.
At Alpine, Arco and its oil-field partners, have set up an oversight panel to protect traditional hunting and fishing activities. Nuiqsut residents are employed at the construction site, and Alpine will send natural gas to the tiny village, which is within sight of the oil field.
But environmentalists are unimpressed by the initiatives. Some have filed a lawsuit to revoke the US Army Corps of Engineers permit issued two months ago for Alpine's construction. "This is the first time in the history of the North Slope that you have an oil field entirely in an active floodplain," says Ann Rothe, executive director of Trustees for Alaska, one of the plaintiff groups.
The permit should not have been issued without reviewing the cumulative impacts of oil development spreading over 400 square miles of the North Slope, she says.