Oil Industry Copes With Climate Impacts As Permafrost Thaws Thawing permafrost in Alaska's Arctic is making it harder for oil companies to operate there. But a cottage industry has cropped up with new gadgets to help.
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Oil Industry Copes With Climate Impacts As Permafrost Thaws

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Oil Industry Copes With Climate Impacts As Permafrost Thaws

Oil Industry Copes With Climate Impacts As Permafrost Thaws

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As the climate changes, Alaska is warming even more quickly than the rest of the United States. And that is creating an opportunity for companies that help Alaska's oil industry adapt. Here's Elizabeth Harball of Alaska's Energy Desk.

ELIZABETH HARBALL, BYLINE: Brian Shumaker knows how tricky it can be for oil companies to work in Alaska. He used to do some engineering work for them up in the Arctic.

BRIAN SHUMAKER: Imagine for a moment you've just landed in a helicopter out on the tundra, and you're about a hundred miles from anywhere, and it's costing you a dollar a second to be here. This is what we do.

HARBALL: There, every winter, companies build hundreds of miles of roads made of ice essential for moving the massive equipment used for oil exploration. But oil companies can't do this until the fragile tundra is sufficiently frozen, and freeze-up is happening up to two months later than it did in the 1980s.

SHUMAKER: OK. So we're going to find a spot.

HARBALL: That is a huge drill.

SHUMAKER: Pretend that this is the center line of an ice road.

HARBALL: Shumaker figured out a way to help oil companies pinpoint exactly when the ground's freezing. Outside his Anchorage warehouse, he drills into the frozen soil and inserts a blue-and-yellow temperature monitoring cable. He hooks it up to a small solar-paneled box. This sends temperature data to the Internet via satellite.

SHUMAKER: Usually with our technology, we can get folks out there days to weeks early. And so it translates into huge cost savings.

HARBALL: His startup is called Beaded Stream, and it isn't alone. 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 so frozen anymore. Although Shumaker says when he talks to customers, he doesn't bring up why temperatures are rising.

SHUMAKER: I'm not debating what's happening. What are we going to do about it?

HARBALL: Multiple oil companies contacted for this story turned down interview requests. Josh Kindred represented those companies until recently with the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

JOSH KINDRED: 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.

HARBALL: Alaska's economy leans heavily on oil money. For Kindred, the idea of stopping the state's oil production to address climate change is unthinkable. So oil companies keep finding ways to adapt. Ed Yarmak runs a company called Arctic Foundations.

ED YARMAK: To be honest, climate change is pretty good business for our company because we're in the business of making things colder.

HARBALL: Like the permafrost that blankets much of Alaska. The oil industry has built a vast network of pipelines and buildings on top of it. But Yarmak says as the permafrost thaws, it can cause problems.

YARMAK: The doors start to stick. The sheet rock cracks. The floor isn't level anymore. Things aren't the way that they planned them.

HARBALL: In the company's Anchorage warehouse, guys in protective goggles are manufacturing long, metal tubes filled with a refrigerant. They're called thermosyphons. Yarmak shows me a dense array of tiny fins that stick out the top.

YARMAK: It's where the heat comes out and goes to the air.

HARBALL: These giant tubes are partially buried in permafrost. The gas inside pulls heat out of the ground and in the process keeps the permafrost frozen. Yarmak says each tube is custom-made and can cost up to $10,000. Oil companies have installed thousands of them across Alaska's Arctic. And if the state continues to warm as projected, he expects to be in business a long time to come. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Harball in Anchorage.

(SOUNDBITE OF I HEAR SIRENS' "EVERYTHING WAS BLACK AND WHITE EXCEPT THE CITY LIGHTS")

INSKEEP: OK. That story comes to us from Alaska's Energy Desk, which is a public media collaboration.

(SOUNDBITE OF I HEAR SIRENS' "EVERYTHING WAS BLACK AND WHITE EXCEPT THE CITY LIGHTS")

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