While ConocoPhillips faces national scrutiny over a future Arctic oil drilling site known as Willow, state regulators took testimony Thursday about an uncontrolled natural gas leak last year at Alpine, a developed oilfield about 30 miles away.
The company rerouted the gas through a waste disposal well within days of the 2022 incident, but it took more than three weeks to stop the leak at the source. ConocoPhillips employees repeatedly told the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission that gas was not detected beyond the gravel drilling pad, known as CD-1, and that no harm to people or wildlife was observed from the gas that emerged through the tundra and gravel.
The company said nothing like this has ever happened before in its 50-year history of operating in the region, and that it has learned lessons to prevent it from occurring again. But for opponents of development at Willow, the gas leak at Alpine represents a cautionary tale.
The Alpine leak prompted worried residents in nearby Nuiqsut to evacuate. Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak said villagers remain concerned about the health impacts of emissions, particularly on pregnant women, infants and elders.
“This event gave our community members much concern,” she testified. “We want to fully understand to prevent this from happening with the new developments that will be nearby our community.”
The mayor asked for an alarm system to warn of future emissions.
The event started in late February 2022, when workers put fluids down the well to prevent freezing. The pressure built to unsafe levels, which wasn’t fully recognized for days, even after gas was detected at the surface of the pad 450 feet away from the well on March 4.
Some sections of the well were enforced with concrete, to prevent events like this. But the source of the leak was determined to be from an area 3,000 feet down, from a relatively shallow formation not previously known to contain much gas. Commissioner Jessie Chmielowski asked why the company doesn’t use more concrete.
ConocoPhillips’ chief Alaska well engineer, Erica Livingston, said the company relies on its well design.
“Do we have an adequate well design that addresses any kind of significant hydrocarbon zones or abnormally pressured geostrata, as is mandated by the regulation? If that required pumping more cement, we would. Absolutely,” Livingston said. “Or we would figure out a way to make the well designed adequate for what we have identified.”
Livingston said ConocoPhillips is now tracking pressure more closely but has not required alarms that would signal an event of this type.
“But again, we’re able to track that pressure and watch it much more closely than we had in the past,” she said.
The commission is considering the case for possible enforcement action, which could include fines. Commission Chair Brett Huber said the panel will issue a written decision. No date has been set for that report.