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Wristbands, longer shifts, fever checks: How Alaska oil companies are responding to the global pandemic

was written by Tegan Hanlon, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Anchorage , 2020-03-28 03:17:13

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A water truck and blade add layers of ice chips and water to an ice road near one of ConocoPhillips’ flow lines on the Western North Slope. (Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

About 500,000 barrels of oil continued to flow daily down the trans-Alaska pipeline this month as the coronavirus pandemic grew at dizzying speeds.

But, while work is continuing on Alaska’s remote North Slope, oil and gas companies say it’s not business as usual. They’re taking new precautions to keep the virus away.

And that includes health checks.

Workers driving the Dalton Highway to the North Slope oil fields must now have a colored wristband or a wallet-sized health card before they can travel to the oil sites beyond Deadhorse — the hub at the end of the haul road at the top of Alaska.

To get a wristband or a card, they first need a check-up, said Conoco spokeswoman Natalie Lowman.

“Our medical screening process is a no-touch thermometer, so one temperature is collected per passenger,” she said. “The worker must pass all medical questions and temperature readings and those who are cleared will be given a wristband, and those are good for one day.”

As the number of coronavirus cases in Alaska continues to increase, the checks are among several measures Conoco says it’s taking to protect its workers who temporarily live on the Slope. Other oil and gas companies in Alaska say they’re also boosting sanitation, keeping workers farther apart and reducing flights.

“We’ve got three very important priorities: protecting the health and well-being of our workforce and their families. We want to mitigate the spread of the virus, and we want to safely run our business,” Lowman said.

Lowman listed the company’s other new measures.

“We’ve limited travel to the North Slope, and we’re deferring some non-critical work to reduce the number of personnel we have on site,” she said.

ConocoPhillips’ CD5 drill site. (Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Out-of-state workers must quarantine for two weeks in Alaska before traveling to the oil fields, Lowman said. To accommodate the change, Conoco recently asked its employees already on the Slope to extend their shifts by another two weeks.

Many Slope employees work two weeks straight, then go home for two weeks before flying back north again.

Lowman said Conoco has about 2,800 employees and contractors working on the Slope. This winter was supposed to be the company’s largest exploration and construction season ever.

Related: Alaska manufacturers retool to produce test swabs, face shields

Lowman said Conoco’s policies comply with the state’s new two-week quarantine requirement.

Starting Wednesday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy began requiring people traveling into Alaska to self-quarantine for two weeks, unless they support “critical infrastructure,” including oil production. Hundreds of businesses have filed plans with the state outlining how they’ll bring out-of-state workers safely into Alaska. That included Conoco and BP.

Oil company BP is also asking its workers to quarantine themselves for two weeks before returning to the Slope, but those living Outside can quarantine at their homes there.

BP has also slimmed down its on-site workforce to essential personnel, said company spokeswoman Megan Baldino. She said BP has extended many workers’ shifts to at least three weeks. No visitors are allowed at the facilities.

Baldino also said BP is looking at flying employees directly from the Lower 48 to Deadhorse, instead of stopping in Anchorage, in an effort to limit their contact with other people. BP’s Prudhoe Bay workforce totals about 1,000 employees, and 39% live out of state.

Catch up on the latest coverage of coronavirus in Alaska.

Both BP and Conoco are also screening employees before they board their flights. Their temperatures are taken, and they’re asked about recent travel. Disinfection of buildings and planes has increased. BP is also currently in the process of selling its entire Alaska business to Hilcorp, which declined to comment for this story.

There’s also all of the service companies operating on the North Slope, including Cruz Construction.

Cruz Construction’s work includes building ice roads and gravel pads. It also supports drilling crews, said Jeff Miller, the company’s vice president and one of its owners. He said the company has asked its Slope workers to stay weeks beyond their usual shifts, potentially until at least the middle of April.

“That helped mitigate the risk of bringing or introducing somebody that could have been infected from down here in the Anchorage area or the Valley area or Fairbanks, and it kept those camps safe,” Miller said.

Despite the leaner workforce on the Slope, the amount of oil flowing down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline each day this month has remained similar to last year’s average production.

But while the coronavirus might not be having a huge impact on oil production in Alaska — at least not yet — Kara Moriarty, head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said cratering oil prices likely will.

“I think a lot of people, and rightly so, are focused on the pandemic, but our industry is being hit by two different factors,” she said. “We have the coronavirus, which of course is changing people’s travel with, Alaska Airlines cutting back 70% of their flights. Obviously, they’re not going to need as much jet fuel.”

There’s also the oil price war. In early March, Alaska North Slope crude sold for roughly $50 a barrel. By Friday, it was about $26.

“So it’s sort of a double hit for us as the industry adjusts,” Moriarty said.

As a result, Conoco announced it was cutting its capital spending in Alaska by roughly $200 million. That means reducing drilling and demobilizing some drill rigs,” Lowman said.

“It’s safe to say that the drop in oil prices isn’t helping any of the situations that we have going on right now,” she said.

Meanwhile, Lowman said, Conoco continues to closely monitor the coronavirus pandemic and will adapt its strategy as necessary. She said the company also has a detailed plan in case an oil field worker gets sick with the virus. It includes identifying who that person had come in contact with, quarantines, medical monitoring and a possible emergency flight off the Slope.

Related: ‘We crossed a line today’: Dunleavy orders statewide shelter in place, limits travel

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going to Alaska, the Last Frontier

Visiting Alaska, the Last Frontier

Oftentimes the more instructive information does not come from extensive esoteric studies but personal experiences showcasing individuals and small communities. Yet, ironically frequently it’s the biggest institutions that provide the fresh and insightful content. Needless to say there is also a role for tourism statistical research or policy analysis. Content about going to Alaska like Wristbands, longer shifts, fever checks: How Alaska oil companies are responding to the global pandemic assist us to have a look around the broad ideas of sustainable travel.

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Among the list of highly recommended places to go for nearly everybody coming to Alaska is

Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is the largest national forest in the United States. It acquired its name from the Tongass Clan of the Tlingit native people and dates back to 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt created the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve. In 1908 the forest had been re-named and expanded and these days the 16.9 million-acre Tongass National Forest runs from the Pacific ocean to the large inland ice fields that edge British Columbia and from the southern tip of Prince of Wales Island to Malaspina Glacier 500 miles to the north. About 80 % of Southeast Alaska is in Tongass and with its thousands of islands, fjords and bays the national forest has 11,000 miles of shoreline. Tongass’ considerable coastal rain forest includes towering hemlock, spruce and red and yellow cedar. The undergrowth underneath thehuge conifers is composed of young evergreens and shrubs including devil’s club, blueberry and huckleberry. Moss and ferns cover the ground, and lichens hang many trees and rocks.

Wildlife is abundant throughout Tongass. Sitka blacktail deer and its two key predators, wolf and brown bear, are located here. Black bear are common as well as mountain goats and some moose. Marine mammals seen along the shores consist of Dall and harbor porpoises, seals and humpback, minke and orca whales and an evergrowing population of sea otters. The waters teem with fish including halibut and all five species of Pacific salmon. More bald eagles stay in this area than in any other spot in the world. While home to the world’s main temperate rain forest, almost fifty percent of Tongass is covered by ice, water, wetlands and rock. It’s most prominent ice floe is the Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska’s “Drive-in glacier” because it is no more than thirteen miles from down-town Juneau along a paved road. A boat ride from Petersburg or Wrangell can bring people near the face of LeConte Glacier, the southernmost tidewater glacier on the continent. Just thirty miles north of Yakutat is Hubbard Glacier, the longest tidewater glacier in the world and very easily Alaska’s most energetic. The 76-mile-long glacier has crossed Russell Fjord several times, most recently in 2008. The rip tides and currents that flow in front of the 8-mile-wide glacier are so powerful they induce Hubbard to calve nearly continuously. The Tongass incorporates 19 wilderness areas, including the 545-sq-mile Russell Fjord Wilderness, as well as Admiralty Island National Monument and Misty Fiords National Monument. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and the general area surrounding Haines and Skagway aren’t part of the national forest.

visiting Tongass National Forest in Alaska

Visiting Tongass National Forest in Alaska, America’s icebox