DOE & Alaska Team Up for Tundra Study

The U.S. Department of Energy will assist the state of Alaska in the first scientifically based study to determine when oil companies can transport equipment over the Arctic tundra without damaging the fragile ecosystem.

"Sound science offers the best way to protect sensitive environments. Today, however, all we have is a general 'rule of thumb' for determining when it is environmentally safe to move oil exploration equipment across the Arctic tundra," Assistant Secretary of Energy for Fossil Energy Mike Smith said. "This project will apply the latest in scientific instrumentation and modeling to refine our understanding of the tundra's resistance to disturbances. The result will be better environmental protection and a much more scientific basis for determining when oil operations can be conducted."

The new ecological model will be a major improvement over the current ad-hoc standard established more than 30 years ago without the benefit of systematic scientific analysis. The standard now limits oil exploration and ice road construction to time periods when there is a minimum of 12 inches of frozen ground and six inches of snow cover over the tundra.

The Energy Department will provide $270,000 for the study. Another $70,000 in funding and technical services is being provided from Total Elf Fina, Anadarko Petroleum, ConocoPhillips and Yale University under an agreement these organizations have with Alaska's Department of Natural Resources.

Research personnel from Yale and the Department of Natural Resources will carry out the analyses and modeling. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Cold Regions Research & Engineering Laboratory will also provide researchers to assist in evaluating the study's design effectiveness and the accuracy of the modeling techniques.

The researchers plan to develop an ecological model that accounts for factors such as snow depth, snow density, ground hardness, and the type of vegetation and soil, and how they interact to protect the tundra from being compacted or deformed.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources is responsible for determining when the tundra is ready for cross-country vehicle travel related to oil exploration and development. In 1970, the current standard was adopted under the assumption that frozen ground and snow cover protects vegetation from being crushed or torn and the soil from being rutted or compressed by oil exploration traffic.

In recent years, however, the ad hoc standard has limited the number of days during the winter work season in which oil exploration activities can occur in the northern region of Alaska. Last year, for example, exploration activity was permitted for only 103 days before spring thawing reduced the frozen ground and snow cover below the standard. If the scientific studies provide a more credible assessment of the tundra's resistance to damage, it may be possible to extend the number of workdays, still without harming the environment.

The study will build on a previous effort by Alaska's Department of Natural Resources to determine if seismic exploration could take place outside the current standards without disturbing the tundra That phase of the effort was completed last year.

It will also add to an ongoing effort, due to be completed this year, which is evaluating several techniques for measuring when the tundra is sufficiently hard to allow ice roads to be built. In recent years, with the development of specialized technology, industry has been constructing ice roads as a more environmentally acceptable alternative to gravel construction.

The new tundra study will be conducted during the autumn and winter of 2003 and the summer of 2004.