(Bloomberg) -- Snow depths on Alaska’s North Slope have thinned this year, the University of Alaska Fairbanks said in a study, creating a possible obstacle for exploration in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge thought to harbor more than 7 billion barrels of oil.
Brisk arctic winds have been blowing away the snow layer on the 1.5 million-acre coastal plane. The institute found two-thirds of the tundra had a snow layer less-than-required for travel, which would impede heavy equipment.
Oil companies rely on a deep and consistent snow cover to protect environmentally sensitive tundra while moving vehicles and equipment.
“It is potentially going to take a different approach because of the challenging snow conditions,” Matthew Sturm, a snow expert at the university’s Geophysical Institute, said in an email. “We felt that few others were aware of these conditions.”
The 19-million-acre refuge’s coastal plain was off limits for decades until the 2017 tax bill signed by President Donald Trump removed restrictions. An environmental study of the area, known as 1002, is being expedited so the government can sell drilling rights as soon as later this year.
However, it could be years before any drilling. Meanwhile, a committee in the Democrat-led House on Sept. 9 will discuss legislation to restore the limits.
The potential for oil-and-gas operations east of Prudhoe Bay, the largest-producing oil field in U.S. history, have accelerated a need to identify and track snow as well as predict the distribution of snow. The Alaska Natural Resources Department in March said the snow pack was below the 9-inch threshold at which vehicle movement is allowed.
“We do not have a sufficient climate record to know or even predict statistically whether this coming winter will be a heavy or light snow winter,” Sturm said.
In between the dunes, the depth was less than six inches, the institute said. In 2018, just 24% of the region had less snow than needed for travel, compared with 67% this year, according to the report. The university said aerial mapping is essential to understand snow cover, which is said it tied closely to climate rather than weather systems.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which will lease the area for exploration, completed hearings on a draft environmental impact statement earlier this year.
Interest in the region may be on the wane. BP Plc last month agreed to sell its Alaskan business, including its operating stake in Prudhoe Bay, as well as all its Alaskan pipelines, ending a six-decade presence in the state. The sale, to Hilcorp Energy Co., was for $5.6 billion.
Oil companies have no new data to use for making bids. Proposed aerial and seismic surveys of the area haven’t won permits, so the best geological data comes from three-decades old studies.
Researchers said snow depths are average this year compared with the deep-snow of 2018, but they were confident next year and in the future the snow cover will remain thinner than in the past. Unlike snow that falls in the contiguous 48 states, snow in the refuge builds during the winter and tends not to melt after landing on frozen ground. It is also more prone to evaporating when blow by wind gusts.
“So each season we have less snow than last year, but this year we have hardly any snow,” Robert Suvlu, a Barrow, Alaska, resident said a public hearing in February. “It’s primarily from blowing snow.”
The area on which leases are to be offered has snow cover that is thinner and more wind-scoured than the deeper snow covers found to the west on state lands, known as Kuparuk, and in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, known as NPRA.
“While there are likely to be areas of sufficient snow depth to operate, these are likely to be surrounded by snow deserts that will require building snow roads in order to transit,” according to the study released this week.
--With assistance from Jennifer A. Dlouhy.
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