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Gas leak at ConocoPhillips Alaskan drilling site forces some to leave

The amount of gas that has escaped from the Alpine oil development on Alaska’s North Slope is unknown

Pipelines extend across the landscape outside Nuiqsut, Alaska, on May 29, 2019. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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For nearly a week, natural gas has been leaking from a ConocoPhillips project outside an Alaska Native American village in the Arctic, prompting the company to evacuate nonessential personnel and some residents to flee.

The gas is leaking from multiple wellheads on ConocoPhillips’s Alpine Central Facility on Alaska’s North Slope, which lies on state land about eight miles from the village of Nuiqsut. The company detected gas escaping through the gravel on March 4 from one of its drill pads, known as CD1, and said that it has not been found outside that drill pad or in the community.

The gas leak, which comes as ConocoPhillips is proposing a controversial new drilling project nearby, has sparked concerns about the accident’s impact on public health as well as the climate. These kinds of leaks emit methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide when it’s first released into the atmosphere and can be harmful when inhaled at high concentrations.

The ongoing leak has worried many residents in Nuiqsut, a town of about 500 people, and prompted some 20 families to flee the area, according to residents and town officials.

“Right now, there is a lot of fear in the community,” Martha Itta, Nuiqsut’s former tribal administrator, said in an interview from Fairbanks. She said her family fled the village because of the leak. “Community members are leaving on their own for their own safety at this time.”

ConocoPhillips spokesman Michael Walter said in a statement that the company had not identified any significant damage at this point.

“There are no reports of injury or environmental impact to the tundra or wildlife,” he said. “Air quality continues to be monitored, and no natural gas has been detected outside of the CD1 pad.”

Itta, a longtime opponent of expanded oil and gas development on the North Slope, said she is skeptical of that assessment of the leak. “I think they’re underestimating the effects.”

The Willow project is one of Alaska’s top development priorities, but it has prompted backlash from environmental and Indigenous groups who warn that it will harm wildlife, drive up carbon emissions and undercut the Biden administration’s transition to renewable energy.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is revising its environmental analysis of the Willow project after a U.S. District Court judge found that the federal government failed to adequately analyze the climate impacts of the project, among other deficiencies.

ConocoPhillips’s gas leak at the Alpine facility “demonstrates that industry is still not able to operate safely in this environment,” said Jeremy Lieb, a senior associate attorney with Earthjustice, which is suing over the project. “These projects pose a real threat to the people living nearby and a climate threat if you have a gas leak directly into the atmosphere.”

Facing catastrophe, this Alaska village can't quit Big Oil

On Monday, ConocoPhillips relocated all nonessential personnel from the Alpine Central Facility and the CD1 pad. Of the 400 employees typically at the facility, about 300 were relocated, Walter said. No injuries have been reported, and all personnel have been accounted for, he said.

The company has not identified a cause of the leak or said how much gas has escaped since it began.

“We have ongoing monitoring on the pad using natural gas detection monitors. We are also conducting Aerial Infrared Surveys to monitor the pad from the air,” Walter said. “The Alpine Central Facility is continuing essential operations, and natural gas continues to be supplied to the Nuiqsut Utility Cooperative.”

The North Slope Borough Mayor Harry K. Brower Jr. sent a letter to Nuiqsut residents on Tuesday telling them that “there is no need to leave the community.”

“Other than potential noticeable nuisance odors outside of town and near the facility or when shifts in the wind occur, there is no impact or risk to the surrounding community,” Brower wrote. “No evacuation was ever considered or needed.”

ConocoPhillips has been testing the air quality at the site of the leak and in the community using portable sensors known as “sniffers” and other canisters that capture air and must be sent out of state for analysis, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for Alaska’s division of homeland security and emergency management.

“The gas was not detectable by those portable detection units a short distance from the well houses where it was present,” Zidek said. “The gas dissipates very quickly in the atmosphere.”

Lois Epstein, an engineer and consultant who spoke with village officials on Thursday, said that cracks have been reported on the drill pad, which could result from pressure caused by permafrost thawing, seismic activity, equipment failure or other factors.

“Cracks aren’t good,” she said. “We don’t really know what would have caused it.”

The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which oversees oil and gas drilling in the state, is investigating the leak. Grace Salazar, a special assistant with the commission, said she could not comment until the investigation is completed.

“We are engaged with ConocoPhillips, and we are closely monitoring the situation,” she said.

In Nuiqsut, residents fear a repeat of a blowout of a well a decade ago run by Repsol North America, a Spanish oil and gas company, about 18 miles from the village. Some 42,000 gallons of drilling mud spewed across the tundra, and several residents later complained of respiratory ailments.

Residents said they are also concerned because their village relies on gas from ConocoPhillips to heat their homes. The temperature in Nuiqsut was minus-21 degrees Fahrenheit on Thursday morning.

“It would be a huge emergency if they lost their gas supply,” said Epstein, the consultant. “It would have to be some level of evacuation.”

Village officials this week have held emergency meetings to discuss evacuation plans and told residents to be prepared to leave quickly.

“This is a very conflicting issue,” said one local official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid upsetting others in a community that relies heavily on the oil and gas industry. “The village is very divided. There are families that are directly involved. … We are fearful that we will have family members that will lose jobs.”

Town officials are also worried about how to operate schools and essential services as more residents evacuate.

Cheri Tremarco, principal of the Nuiqsut Trapper school, said that some students have left and that they are excusing children whose families don’t feel comfortable having them come to school.

“We have school open,” she said. “We want to keep things as normal as possible.”

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