BREAKING NEWS: Agencies sign off on proposed Arctic bridge


ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Two federal agencies have reached an agreement with ConocoPhillips Alaska that moves the company closer to building the first bridge and pipeline over the Colville River on Alaska's North Slope.

The company wants access across the Arctic river to reach leases within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Oil pumped from the leases would be the first production within the vast reserve.

The Army Corps of Engineers in February 2010 denied a permit for the bridge and said a buried pipe would be less environmentally damaging. ConocoPhillips appealed, and the Corps sought a review of the project by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Interior Department announced Monday that the two agencies could accept the bridge if conditions were met, including engineering changes and substantial mitigation proposed by ConocoPhillips in consultation with the agencies.

"This is a positive step in the process of granting the Section 404 permit for the CD5 project. We have not yet seen the permit nor its conditions, but we are encouraged by today's announcement," ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Natalie Lowman said in an email to The Associated Press.

The company also has agreed to allow other companies that develop leases within the petroleum reserve to use the bridge rather than having to seek approval for additional channel crossings in the area, the department announced.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes oversaw discussions between the agencies and the company. Hayes is chairman of President Barack Obama's interagency working group for energy development and permitting in Alaska.

The Corps has not issued a bridge permit, but the Interior Department announcement said that agency is expected to carry out remaining steps of permit review in coming weeks.

The CD-5 field is on the eastern edge of the petroleum reserve and an extension of ConocoPhillips' Alpine Field.

Alaska's congressional delegation has pushed hard for the Corps to change its initial decision as a way to keep oil supplied to the trans-Alaska pipeline. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski hailed the agreement and said ConocoPhillips has been working to develop reserves at CD-5 for nearly a decade.

"I've had numerous disagreements with the administration on Alaska issues, but I appreciate the involvement of the White House and the Interior Department in removing this particular roadblock to improving our nation's energy security," Murkowski said in a statement. "I hope this important step will lead to further improvements in how applications to drill for oil in Alaska are handled and help the president carry out his May 14 pledge to accelerate development within the NPR-A."

Democratic Sen. Mark Begich said in a statement that the announcement is "a great way to ring in the holiday season at a time when Alaska's oil and gas industry needs to hear some good news on the development front."

The federal government has conducted a half-dozen lease sales in the 36,000-square-mile National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska over the last 12 years. The president in May called for additional petroleum development in Alaska, including annual NPRA lease sales. The next lease sale is scheduled for Wednesday.

12/19/2011 - 11:46am