Energy in America: No Bridge to Oil

North of the Arctic Circle, the tiny village of Nuiqsut, Alaska, has become the latest flash point in the struggle between oil drilling and environmentalism.

The town, with a population of 400, nearly all Eskimos, sits on the edge of the Colville River and the National Petroleum Reserve, or NPR. How isolated is it? It takes four flights and eight hours to get there from Seattle.

Conoco Phillips wants to build a road bridge and pipeline over the river to connect to the nearby Alpine development, which sits just outside the NPR. But the Army Corps of Engineers rejected the plan telling, the oil company it had to go under the river.

Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar supports the Corps' decision.

"It has to be done the right way in the right place in making sure we’re taking into account environmental protections," Salazar said.

Conoco Phillips said piping below the river is too expensive and risky. In its application, the company argued the oil coming out of the NPR would be a mix of oil, gas and water which poses a greater threat of corrosion. If pipes are underground, they're harder to monitor if a problem arises.

The NPR, 23 million acres of North Slope wilderness, was established by President Warren Harding in 1923 for oil to fuel the U.S. Navy. While reserve estimates have been downgraded in recent years, it’s still believed to contain 900 million barrels of oil.

Conoco Phillips expects to produce up to 18,000 barrels of oil per day if it can get there.

Access is poor. There are no roads, so equipment would have to be flown in, which is why there’s not a single production well in America’s National Petroleum Reserve. The bridge, which is supported by the people of Nuiqsut, was supposed to change that and the village’s 38 percent unemployment.

"This community would become a hub for the oil industry," said Nuiqsut mayor Thomas Napageak. "I believe that would create a lot of jobs."

Napageak, 28, does not blindly support the oil interests. As a whaling captain, he opposes offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, which is a battle being fought between Shell Oil Company and environmental groups. He also sits on a committee charged with monitoring Conoco Phillips’ Alpine operation to make sure it does not harm the environment. Napageak said the company has been a responsible neighbor and has had minimal impact on Nuiqsut’s subsistence hunting and fishing.

The native Eskimos live mostly on whale, seals, caribou and fish. Napageak says a bridge across the Nigiliq channel of the Colville River would actually make it easier for natives to access their hunting grounds. But federal law doesn’t see it that way.

The Environmental Protection Agency designated the Colville River as an aquatic resource of national importance. The Army Corps of Engineers had to take that into consideration when deciding on the bridge proposal. “We should minimize the harm to the environment,” says Col. Reinhard Koenig of the Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska.

Environmentalists agree. Eric Myers of the Alaska Audubon Society has never been to Nuiqsut, but he says the Colville Delta is vital. “It’s a very important area for shorebirds. It has a large variety of habitat for fish species,” Myers said.

Alaska’s lone congressman, Don Young, said building a bridge into the NPR should be a no-brainer. "We have to start listening to logic," Young said. "There’s not much logic when those interest groups don’t want this country to progress and go forward."

For now, the issue is stalled. The Army Corps of Engineers has been asked to reconsider its opposition to the bridge. So like the Colville, which is frozen for over half the year, the bridge fight is stuck in a bureaucratic ice jam. Green groups fear a road would pave the way for massive oil development while supporters ask the question, if not in a place named the National Petroleum Reserve, then where can you drill for oil?