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Environmental Risk Assessment in the Arctic

Environmental Risk Assessment in the Arctic

This project considers issues associated with the management of environmental risk in the Alaskan Arctic. The focus of the research is the decision whether to support an oil production pad in the terrestrial Arctic by the construction of a gravel road, or to support it by other forms of communication. The study examines the problem from the risk perspectives of all of the stakeholder groups involved in the decision process, each of which has a contrasting perception of the environmental risks involved.

The Alaskan Arctic Ocean littoral is the location of rich deposits of oil and gas. To date, the development of these resources has primarily been associated with the extraction of oil from onshore installations at Prudhoe Bay. The reservoir fluid is transferred to the port of Valdez via the 800 mile long Trans Alaska Pipeline System, for onward shipment. The gas is mostly re-injected. Exploration drilling is undertaken in winter from ice pads. The development of commercially viable reservoirs occurs from pads constructed from locally mined gravel. These pads insulate the heat generated by the industrial activity from the permafrost that underlies the meagre surface covering of the Arctic wetland, preventing settling and other thermal injury.

Arctic gravel roads may be used to link production pads to the existing road network, or for linking pads together in local field developments. They are structures that have the potential to bring about significant change or harm to the terrestrial and biological environment, and remediation is both expensive, and problematic. However, alternative forms of transport, such as aircraft, tundra vehicles, hovercraft and barges all have shortcomings and environmental impacts of their own. By contrast, roads can be used in all but the most savage extremes of Arctic weather, and this utility is considered when unlikely but potentially catastrophic risks require management; events such as blowouts, fires, and emergency medical evacuation.

The forum for the balance of these risks in the Alaskan Arctic is the permitting system. The construction of a gravel road as part of an oil development project is subject to the grant of a number of permits, usually from several different agencies, both state and federal. The various stakeholder groups, including local inhabitants, non-government organisations, oil companies and government agencies, all act within this system to apportion the environmental risk arising from the project. This research examines the perception of environmental risk associated with gravel road use for oil development, and seeks to determine how the risk minimisation decision may best be made.

Following the collection of data in Alaska during 2001, this research is currently in the pre-analysis phase.