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Alaskan Villagers Challenge Alpine Satellite Permit Decision

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Residents of a northern Alaskan village have challenged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' (Corps) issuance of a Clean Water Act (CWA) permit to ConocoPhillips for its fifth Alpine satellite field, citing the proposed project's negative environmental impact and the Corps failed to comply with the CWA and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in its decision-making.

In a lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Alaska, seven residents of Nuiqsut, Alaska argued that ConocoPhillips' proposed plan to build a drilling pad, bridges and access road as part of the Alpine West CD5 project would permanently bury 58.5 acres of high functioning wetlands and streams, presenting a "serious risk" for catastrophic oil spills in the Colville River Delta, and would adversely impact the wildlife that rely on the Arctic Coastal Plain and Colville River Delta.

The residents, who rely on food gathered through subsistence hunting and fishing to feed themselves, also said the development could limit their ability to hunt and fish. The residents regularly visit the area where the drilling project would be located, and say they have had difficulty hunting on the east side of the Nigliq Channel because of ConocoPhillips' existing Alpine satellite facilities and expect further development in the Delta will negatively impact their ability to hunt.

The residents argued the Corps failed to provide reasoned analysis for least environmentally damaging practicable alternative determination (LEDPA) pursuant to CWA Section 404 permits, noting that a Section 404 permit could not be issued if an alternative to a water discharge with a less environmental impact exists. The CWA act prohibits the discharge of any pollutant into navigable waters unless authorized by a Section 404 permit.

The Corps in December 2011 had issued a CWA Section 404 permit to ConocoPhillips to allow the company to discharge fill material into the site where the drilling pad, 6-mile access road and bridge that would cross the Nigliq Channel of the Colville River.

ConocoPhillips had initially applied for a Section 404 permit for CD-5 in September 2005. In November of that year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that ConocoPhillips had not demonstrated that the proposed project was the LEDPA and did not provide enough information to support ConocoPhillips' decision that the roadless design proposed for the site was infeasible, or ConocoPhillips' proposed road was the environmentally preferable alternative.

The residents argued that the Corps had initially determined in its 2010 Record of Decision & Permit Evaluation (ROD) that the HDD pipeline alternative and no road to connect to the main Alpine facility with CD-5 was the least environmentally damaging practical alternative, but then reversed its decision in the 2011 ROD, finding that ConocoPhillips' preferred road and bridge alternative as the LEDPA.

"The Corps failed to discuss why facts and policies that were relevant to the 2010 decision, such as the risk of a catastrophic spill from the suspended pipeline, no longer support the finding that the HDD alternative is the LEDPA," according to the filing.

The residents also claimed that the Corps failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires that environmental information be made public before decisions are made. The residents said the Corps did not prepare its own NEPA analysis for its Section 404 permit decision for CD-5, and failed to take a hard look at the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts associated with the project.

Additionally, the Corps relied heavily on materials not included in the Bureau of Land Management's 2004 Alpine environmental impact statement (EIS) to evaluate the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of the CD-5 project. These materials were not subject to public review and comment as part of the NEPA process, which violates the public participation requirements of NEPA.

The residents said the Corps failed to provide any supplemental NEPA analysis that addresses changes in the proposed project, including new information regarding climate change, changes in industry practice, changes in federal land management within the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, expanded oil and gas leasing activity offshore and resulting necessary onshore infrastructure, as well as new wildlife information.

"Failure to supplement the 2004 EIS with additional NEPA analysis violates NEPA," the residents argued.

The CD-5 site is located approximately 8.5 miles northwest of Nuiqsut and lies within the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska. CD-5 is a satellite field west of the Alpine field, one of the largest onshore oil fields discovered in North America in the past 20 years, according to ConocoPhillips' website. Initial production from the site is expected in late 2015.

Alpine is located approximately 40 miles west of the Kuparuk oil field. Other Alpine satellites include the Fiord, Nanuq and Qannik fields.



Karen Boman has more than 10 years of experience covering the upstream oil and gas sector. Email Karen at kboman@rigzone.com.

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