Oil Industry Copes With Climate Impacts As Permafrost Thaws

Oil operations in Alaska are specially designed for freezing conditions. But as the climate changes, the state is warming twice as fast as the rest of the country. That poses a challenge for the oil industry, and a boon for Alaska businesses that are creating products to help it cope.

Brian Shumaker is one such entrepreneur who knows how tricky it can be to operate in the Arctic, where he once did some engineering work for oil companies.

“Imagine for a moment you’ve just landed in a helicopter out on the tundra,” he says, “you’re about a hundred miles from anywhere, and it’s costing you a dollar a second to be here.”

Companies must build hundreds of miles of ice roads – roads literally made of ice — to move the massive equipment used for oil exploration. But state regulators don’t allow that construction to start until the fragile tundra is sufficiently frozen. And scientists report that freeze-up is happening up to two months later than it did in the 1980’s.

Seeing an opportunity, Shumaker figured out a way to help oil companies pinpoint exactly when the ground is freezing.

To demonstrate, he drills into the frozen soil outside his Anchorage warehouse and inserts a blue and yellow temperature monitoring cable. He hooks it up to a small, solar-paneled box – a data logger that transmits temperatures to the internet via satellite. Using these devices, he says oil companies can squeeze the longest possible oil exploration season into steadily shrinking winters.

“Usually with our technology we can get folks out there days to weeks early,” says Shumaker, whose company is called Beaded Stream. “It translates into huge cost savings.”

Oil companies now help support a cottage industry of consultants and product manufacturers in Alaska, all providing workarounds for the fact that the frozen ground they rely on to produce oil isn’t as frozen as it used to be.

Although Shumaker says when he talks to customers, he doesn’t bring up why temperatures are rising. “I’m not debating what’s happening,” he says. “What are we going to do about it?”

For an industry that’s often blamed for climate change, talking about coping with it can be awkward. Multiple oil companies contacted for this story turned down interview requests.

“It is ironic, and it’s challenging for a state that is so dependent on resource extraction but is also really feeling the impacts of climate change,” says Josh Kindred, who until recently represented many oil companies with the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

Alaska’s economy leans heavily on oil money. For Kindred and many other Alaskans, the idea of stopping the state’s oil production to address climate change is unthinkable.

So the industry keeps finding ways to adapt.

“To be honest, climate change is pretty good business for our company,” says Ed Yarmak, who runs Arctic Foundations and gets about half his work from oil companies on the North Slope. “We’re in the business of making things colder.”

By “things” he means the permafrost that blankets Alaska’s North Slope.

The oil industry has built a vast network of pipelines and buildings on top of permafrost, and has always had to use special engineering to adjust for it. Oil operators have used Yarmak’s product since the 1970’s, but he says rising temperatures mean it’s needed even more.

As permafrost thaws, he says, “the doors start to stick, the sheet rock cracks, the floor isn’t level any more. Things aren’t the way that they planned them.”

To help, Yarmak manufactures long metal tubes filled with a refrigerant, called thermosyphons. In his company’s Anchorage warehouse he points out a dense array of tiny fins that stick out the top.

“It’s where the heat comes out and goes to the air,” he says.

These giant tubes are partially buried in the permafrost. The gas inside pulls heat out of the ground and in the process, keeps it frozen.

Each tube is custom-made and can cost up to $10,000. Yarmak says oil companies have installed thousands of them across Alaska’s Arctic. If the state continues to warm as projected, he expects to be in business a long time to come.

This report comes from Alaska’s Energy Desk, a public media collaboration focused on energy and the environment.

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