An oil company wants to use giant chillers to refreeze the ground that climate change is thawing in order to drill for more oil — which will ultimately accelerate global warming
- ConocoPhillips, one of the nation's largest
oilcompanies, has proposed a large drilling project in northern Alaska, where climate changeis causing the permafrost to melt.
- The company is planning to use chillers called thermosyphons to prevent the ground from thawing underneath key infrastructure, according to an environmental impact statement published last Friday.
- Melting permafrost could damage
ConocoPhillips' infrastructure, the Bureau of Land Management said Friday. The agency approved the plan.
- Burning oil produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that fuels
ConocoPhillips, one of the nation's largest oil companies, might soon be forced to face symptoms of a problem it helped create — melting permafrost wrought by climate change.
In a planned project in northern Alaska, where global warming is causing the frozen soil to thaw, the company said it would use chillers to keep the ground beneath key infrastructure frozen, according to an environmental impact statement published by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last Friday, Bloomberg Law first reported.
The infrastructure, itself, could also exacerbate the thawing of the ground, the agency said.
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The project, known as Willow, could produce more than 160,000 barrels of oil per day over a period of about 30 years, during which climate change is likely to worsen warming, BLM said.
In the last 60 years, average temperatures in the region rose by 3 degrees and they're expected to increase by as much as 12 degrees by the end of the century "if global emissions continue to increase," the agency said.
The transportation sector — which runs on fuels made with oil — is the largest source of planet-warming emissions in the US. The oil produced by the ConocoPhillips project is thus likely to accelerate global warming and the melting of Alaska's permafrost.
"Climate change is affecting the Arctic and our operations, but these effects are incremental, which means they can be effectively monitored and addressed as they arise," a ConocoPhillips representative said in a statement. "For example, in addition to closely monitoring changes in the depth of the usual summertime thawing of the permafrost surface layer each year, where necessary we use cooling devices (thermosyphons) that can chill the ground enough in the winter to help it remain frozen through the summer."
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Climate change bites back
Set to be built in Alaska's North Slope, the ConocoPhillips project is reliant on the region's cold temperatures and the permafrost — ground comprised of soil, rocks, and ice that typically stays frozen year after year.
The plan includes almost 500 miles of ice roads and an ice bridge, Bloomberg Law reports. And it depends on the frozen ground to build drilling pads for oil extraction, gravel roads, and airstrips, according to the BLM review.
Without intervention, that infrastructure is at risk.
Melting permafrost, brought on by global warming, not only releases additional greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and methane but it can also cause the ground to suddenly give out, causing roads and other infrastructure to fall apart.
"Key changes to anticipate as a result of a changing arctic climate are permafrost thawing, shorter ice road seasons, and changes to precipitation," the agency said. "Permafrost thawing and uneven settlement could cause damage to infrastructure such as gravel pads, roads, and pipelines. A shorter ice road season would affect the transport of materials and personnel that depend on ice roads."
Oil drilling infrastructure including gravel roads and well casings can also accelerate the thawing of the land immediately surrounding it, the agency said.
"Well casings from production and injection wells would transfer heat to the surrounding soils and could change the thermal regime of the permafrost and create areas of deep thaw," BLM said.
One solution: Refreeze the ground
One solution to the thawing permafrost is to haul in giant freezers — which is essentially what ConocoPhillips plans to do, according to the impact statement.
BLM said in its report that the oil company, based in Houston, would deploy thermosyphons, a type of non-electronic cooling device, nearby various infrastructure including well pads and well house shelters.
"Thermosiphons would be installed in specified areas," the report said, "to protect the permafrost and prevent subsidence."
ConocoPhillips, Alaska's largest oil producer, would also take other precautions, such as making the gravel roads and well pads especially thick, according to the agency.
The project could help boost the state's oil output, which has fallen dramatically in the last few decades, from over 2 million barrels per day in the late 80s to just over 400,000 barrels per day, Reuters reports.
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