Earlier this week, the Biden administration approved ConocoPhillips’ Project Willow, to the dismay of many environmental groups. The project is an oil drilling venture in the National Petroleum Reserve slated to drill oil on federal land in Alaska’s North Slope. One part of the plan? Installing “thermosyphons” in the Arctic to artificially freeze it.
The Arctic’s permafrost is melting due to climate change spurred by the human consumption of fossil fuels, and the proposed oil drilling venture has the potential to further impact the area’s ecosystem. But the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management has accounted for this.
As the project’s environmental impact statement notes, there are measures to minimize heat transfer and impacts to permafrost by “designing flare stack height to reduce radiant heating; filling the gap between well conductors and inner pipes with polyurethane foam; using thermosyphons adjacent to well rows and at-grade structures; and installing insulation below the foundation floors of heated, at-grade structures.”
Thermosyphons are long metal pipes installed in the ground that utilize passive heat transfer so that the ground stays cold.
“Pressurized two-phase gas (typically natural refrigerants such as CO2 or NH3) moves through the sealed closed-loop system, driven by the difference in temperature between the cold winter air and the warmer ground temperature,” the ConocoPhillips website explains. “As the vapor/condensate moves, heat is transferred out of the permafrost. They require no external power supply.”
This isn't an environmentally benevolent plan. In the context of the Willow Project, keeping the ground solid is also a priority to ensure it’s stable enough to hold the drill equipment. And according to a High County News article on a separate thermosyphons initiative, the technology is not new to the area.
“Thermosyphons have been used for decades to protect critical infrastructure in Alaska, including communications towers, buildings and the state’s famed Trans-Alaska pipeline system—anything that could collapse should the permafrost beneath it melt,” reads the article. “The state’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has installed thermosyphons on roadways north of the Alaska range.”
But many scientists and environmental advocacy groups condemn the Willow Project’s use of such devices, finding it ironic.
“It’s absurd that as our tundra is melting because of climate change, ConocoPhillips plans to use ‘chillers’ to re-freeze tundra so it can drill for oil that will, in turn, make climate change even worse,” Alaska Environment Research and Policy Center State Director Dyani Chapman said in a statement.