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Ice Road Energy Truckers Getting Permafrost Parkway to Beaufort Beaches

A revival of offshore drilling in the Arctic has emerged as an industrial user for a "roads-to-resources" development that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched this week on the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories (NWT).

A 455-page drilling project description by Imperial Oil, ExxonMobil Corp. and BP plc was under review by Delta environmental authorities when Harper flew to Inuvik, NWT, for a ceremonial start on construction of a year-round ground route to the Beaufort Sea coast.

The oil and gas producers' schedule sets a 2020 target date for their first well beneath the Beaufort after assembling a mini-armada of ice-strengthened vessels capable of operating in water up to 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) deep, 125 kilometers (75 miles) out to sea northwest of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT.

For a forecast construction cost of C$300 million (US$276 million), Harper's road will open an all-weather motoring trail to the primarily aboriginal hamlet, linking its gravel Beaufort beaches to the North American highway network for the first time.

The new link, a gravel road suitable for rugged and heavy vehicles, will cross 137 kilometers (82 miles) of woods and tundra between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. The underlying permafrost will stay frozen beneath an insulating gravel pad up to 2.4 meters (eight feet) thick to prevent melting that would turn the road into a watery ditch.

Durable trucks and cars, driven by well-prepared and determined motorists, have been able to reach Inuvik from Dawson City, Yukon, since the 671-kilometer (403-mile) Dempster Highway was completed in 1979. Dawson City is reached via the Klondike Highway across 536 kilometers (322 miles) of wilderness from the Yukon capital of Whitehorse.

In the 1970s and '80s Imperial, Gulf Canada (now ConocoPhillips) and Dome Petroleum (now BP) operated shallow-water offshore drilling campaigns near the Beaufort coast from base camps at Tuktoyaktuk, using arrays of ice-resistant hardware that have long since been sold or discarded.

Before Harper kept a long-standing promise by his Conservative party to build the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk road, supplies could only reach Canada's Arctic coast by air freight, summer barge tows down the Mackenzie River, or round-about ocean voyages across the top of Alaska.

The new consortium of Imperial, Exxon and BP plans to acquire bigger, tougher vessels for wells in deeper waters farther out on the Beaufort. The drilling project plan predicts sea-ice conditions will be "manageable" by current state-of-the-art equipment for 120-day summer work seasons.

The 1970s and '80s exploration campaigns included extensive research and development of a Canadian art known as ice management. In the planned Beaufort drilling area, air temperatures average 10 degrees C (50 degrees F) during the warm months and the ocean heats up just enough to help break up the Arctic ice pack. Winters average minus 27 degrees C (minus 17 degrees F) and seawater congeals into mobile floes of variable thickness formed by complex interactions of winds, currents and waves.

The consortium's drilling project description confirms that the National Energy Board (NEB) will be asked to accept a substitute for a safety and environmental requirement that was a key element in 1970s and '80s regulatory approvals.

The old standard -- "single-season relief well capability," or assurance that a second well could be drilled to siphon off a blowout before the end of the summer work season when an accident happens -- is not realistic for the new exploration plan, the document says.

Although the NEB retained the old requirement as a goal after a 2009-2010 review of Arctic drilling standards, the wording of updated regulations indicated that the board is prepared to consider alternatives for plugging runaway wells during single work seasons.

The Canadian inquiry focused on the relief well rule, with numerous public interveners insisting on its retention, after BP's Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

As senior partner and project operator for the Arctic offshore consortium, Imperial says, "If a relief well is required it would take longer than drilling the original well."

Unlike the Gulf of Mexico, the Beaufort just does not allow year-round operations. The old Arctic safety requirement is unrealistic because "the relief well would have a longer wellbore; it would need to be drilled from a location other than the original wellbore," Imperial says.

In addition, "The relief well would be a directional well. The additional surveys and directional accuracy required to drill a relief well result in slower drilling progress. A relief well might be started in the same season [as a blowout], but it could not be finished in the same season."

At the Inuvik road-building ceremony, Harper steered clear of commenting on the drilling consortium's plans or the safety and environmental issues. Instead, he emphasized continuity with a grand resource development vision that was famously articulated by a previous Conservative prime minister, John Diefenbaker, during the 1950s and '60s and lives on in political ambitions including current hopes to win international approval for a Canadian claim to sovereignty over subsea minerals beneath the North Pole.

Harper said, "Prime Minister Diefenbaker knew then what our government is undertaking today: constructing a highway will improve the lives of people living in the North for generations to come, facilitating economic development, creating jobs and enabling cost-effective, safe and reliable transportation of goods to and from Northern communities."

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