Federal delay may scuttle season at GMT-1

ConocoPhillips could lose a year in starting work on its Greater Moose’s Tooth No. 1 project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska due to a possible U.S. Bureau of Land Management delay in completing an environmental impact statement for the project, state Commissioner of Natural Resources Joe Balash says.

The state has been informed by BLM that the EIS will now be done in October.

Given that, “it may be December before a Record of Decision can be done, and that could make it very difficult for the Corps of Engineers and other agencies to issue permits in time for a start of gravel work this winter on the project,” Balash said in an interview Aug. 4.

Previously, BLM was working to get the EIS completed and a Record of Decision by October, which would have allowed ample time for the Corps to issue its Section 404 dredge and fill permit for gravel work.

If GMT-1 is to stay on schedule for a late 2017 startup, ConocoPhillips must begin laying gravel this winter for an eight-mile access road and the gravel production pad because the gravel must “settle” over a summer before final contouring and completion the following winter, the commissioner said.

ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Natalie Lowman underscored that.

“We are working with BLM and cooperating agencies on GMT-1 permits, and part of that work involves explaining the importance of year-round road access for potential emergency spill response as well as environmental, safety, operational and economic reasons,” she said in a statement.

“We need a BLM Record of Decision as soon as possible and a Corps of Engineers permit by mid-January to stay on schedule; otherwise we risk significant delays to the project.”

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski also voiced concerns over the schedule. BLM officials appear to be “slow walking” their review of the GMT-1 application until after the November election, she said.

“The Army corps requires a minimum of 120 days to review an application for the dredge-and-fill permit,” Murkowski said.

However, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich has been told by BLM that things are on track.

“Our staff spoke with DOI staff today (Aug. 5) and we were assured that the Supplemental EIS is on track to be finalized no later than October. We are also working to make sure the Army Corps of Engineers permitting process is on a parallel track so there won’t be any additional delays there either,” Begich spokeswoman Heather Handyside said.

That may be difficult to do, Murkowski said.

“The Army corps requires a minimum of 120 days to review an application for the dredge-and-fill permit,” Murkowski said in a statement.

The dredge-and-fill permit, issued under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, is typically processed after the Record of Decision is issued on the EIS.

In a Aug. 5 statement Begich said, “I have been in constant contact with the all the parties involved, including DOI, the White House, ConocoPhillips, and Alaska Native corporations, and I’ve made it clear that delaying the project is not an option. It’s been studied to death and DOI needs to get off the dime, conclude the studies, and approve the permit.”

BLM director Neil Kornze earlier told the senator in a hearing that one of the agency’s alternatives being considered includes “roadless.”

“Such a restriction would erase the project’s economic viability,” Murkowski told Kornze.

GMT-1 would produce 30,000 barrels per day beginning in late 2017. The state has a stake in the project because it would receive production tax revenue from GMT-1 even though the project is on federal land.

Balash also said he is concerned that BLM is considering a “roadless” alternative in the EIS along with at least two routings of the road connecting the project to the CD-5 drill site and to the producing Alpine oil field which is also operated by ConocoPhillips.

“We are concerned as to their intentions. We’re a little perplexed because it appears none of the ‘cooperating’ agencies on the EIS, such as the state or the North Slope Borough, has asked for roadless access. The idea appears to have been generated internally within BLM,” Balash said.

There is also no record, so far, of any other federal agency asking the BLM to consider a roadless alternative.

On one hand it is understandable that the agency will scrutinize every option carefully in view on the ongoing litigation by environmental groups of the corps of engineers’ permit for a bridge and access road to CD-5, Balash said.

“They obviously want to produce an EIS that is bullet-proof from lawsuits, but we would be very concerned if they are working hard on a ‘roadless’ option,” he said. “ConocoPhillips has been very clear that no road means no project. It just won’t work for them.”

The company has said that it needs year-around road access to GMT-1 and to possible other drill sites that could be developed if there is an emergency at any time of year and heavy equipment must be moved.

Sara Longan, director of the state’s Office of Project Management and Permits, said BLM is considering four alternatives along with the standard “no action” option. These include one road route that ConocoPhillips says it prefers along with two routes with alternative routing and a “seasonal” road option, meaning a winter ice road. This is the “roadless” option.

Longan said the key decisions by BLM have yet to be made and that Balash, working with the state’s office in Washington, D.C., is considering what options the state might have in pushing things along.

The concern over “roadless” is that such an option, if selected by BLM, may effectively preclude NPR-A development in the near-term because the road, like the CD-5 bridge across the Colville River, is an essential part of long-range infrastructure needed for development.

Conservation groups are likely to push for the roadless option, and federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may promote it informally.

Murkowski said the projects and the road are supported by both the regional and village corporations for the North Slope. Kornze told Murkowski he had been told directly by North Slope villagers, in his visit to the Slope, of their support for the road.

Without a road the only access to GMT-1 would be by aircraft, which could have a greater impact on the behavior of wildlife, like caribou, on which local people depend for subsistence.

In a years-long fight over the Corps permit for the CD-5 road and bridge, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the EPA pushed strongly for roadless access to that production site, arguing that a pipeline crossing could be built below the Colville River in lieu of the bridge.

The Corps initially chose the roadless option for CD-5, but on administrative appeal from ConocoPhillips and the State of Alaska, the agency reversed its decision and allowed the bridge.

Construction began last winter, but a challenge by environmental groups to the Corps decision led to a judge ruling that more justification was needed. The Corps has since submitted a plan to explain its decision and Alaska U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason accepted the proposal as possible remedy on July 22.

11/22/2016 - 2:29pm