National News

Here’s What Oil Drilling Looks Like in the Arctic Refuge, 30 Years Later

Posted December 15, 2017 3:35 p.m. EST

Satellite images of a small part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge show the site of what, so far, is the only oil well ever drilled in the refuge, an exploratory well known as KIC-1 that was completed in the mid-1980s. The well was plugged and abandoned, and the drilling equipment and a special timber pad it sat on have long since been removed.

But as the infrared images show, even after three decades, the well’s footprint — about 600 feet long on its longest side — is easily distinguishable from the undisturbed tundra around it.

The arctic refuge is a vast region of tundra: mosses, sedges and shrubs underlain by permafrost. But the area is also believed to contain large petroleum reserves. Since the current boundaries of the refuge were established by an act of Congress in 1980, there has been a debate over whether oil and gas exploration should be allowed in a portion of the area, 1.5 million acres on the coastal plain. The issue has been revived in recent months, and through the budget-making process Republicans in Congress are perhaps closer than ever to opening the area to drilling.

In 1988, a couple of years after operations at the well ceased, most of the vegetation at the site was dead.

“It’s easy to do something on the tundra but it’s very difficult to restore,” said Francis Mauer, a retired biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who worked in the refuge for decades, including the years when the well was in place.

The drillers took care to protect the tundra, creating an ice runway to fly in huge timbers to serve as the pad, instead of a potentially more destructive gravel base. The pad was insulated from the ground as well, and the operators also dug two pits next to it to hold the mud and rock that was drilling waste.

While the timber pad offered some advantages, it effectively killed the vegetation beneath it, said Janet C. Jorgenson, a Fish and Wildlife botanist who has worked in the refuge since 1988 and observed the site for many years. That initiated changes which continued over the years, despite efforts to reseed the area with grasses.

Without the vegetative cover to keep the permafrost cold, it began to thaw.

Vertical wedges of solid ice melted, creating pools of water. The two pits, which were initially covered with soil, subsided over the years, leading to more pooling. They were topped with gravel a decade ago and now have very little vegetation. Given all the thawing and melting, Jorgenson said, about 17 percent of the site is covered in water now, compared with about 2 percent of the surrounding tundra.

KIC-1 was allowed as part of the 1980 legislation, and was drilled on private native lands within the refuge, east of the village of Kaktovik. Chevron, BP and other companies ran the project, which cost $40 million. The results of the drilling, whether it revealed the presence of significant oil or not, have not been made public.

Photos of the well site show the pad with drilling equipment and without. It was in place for about a year and a half, from 1985 to 1986, including two winters.

In the 30 years since KIC-1 was drilled, techniques have changed somewhat. For one thing, directional drilling now allows operators to drill many wells from one pad. Yet KIC-1 shows how even when care is taken, the delicate landscape of northern Alaska can be damaged by drilling activities, and that the damage can persist.

“Once you start disturbing the tundra vegetation, it takes sometimes nearly forever for the mark to go away,” Mauer said.