Arctic Alaska oilfields and mines stay open but add quarantines, longer shifts

Both sectors are considered "essential" by the state of Alaska.

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Pipelines snake through the Greater Prudhoe Bay unit on Alaska’s North Slope. (Yereth Rosen)

Two of Arctic Alaska’s main economic drivers, oil and mining, are continuing to operate during the coronavirus pandemic — but with some significant changes.

Oil and mining are classified by the state as among the “essential” industries that must continue their activities. Companies have responded by adding extended work rotations and making other adjustments to reduce risks of virus spread.

BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., operator of the Prudhoe Bay field, is requiring all workers — Alaska residents and non-residents — to self-quarantine for 14 days before reporting to duty.

North Slope shifts that used to be two weeks on duty and two weeks off-duty have now been extended to at least 21 days, said BP spokeswoman Megan Baldino. “That ensures that employees can self-quarantine,” she said.

Workers are being screened before they board BP’s chartered flights to the North Slope, she said. Non-Alaska workers are being provided temporary housing in Anchorage so that people can self-quarantine before their rotations, and BP is considering chartering flights to bring out-of-state workers directly from the Lower 48 to the North Slope, she said.

[Thousands of oil and construction workers are stuck at remote sites in the Russian Arctic]

ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc., the state’s largest oil producer, began extending shifts on March 18, said company spokeswoman Natalie Lowman. At the same time, it imposed a 14-day quarantine rule for workers who live or have traveled out of state, she said.

Both companies have reduced the North Slope workforce to “essential” personnel; Lowman said production has not been affected by that change.

Work rotations have also been extended at the Red Dog Mine in northwestern Alaska, one of the world’s largest zinc producers.

Red Dog “has implemented significant changes” to travel policies, Chris Stannell, public relations manager for mine operator Teck Resources Ltd., said by email.

Under the new policy, there are no more flights out from the mine to the communities in northwestern Alaska, where about 100 of mine employees live, Stannell said. All flights out from the mine will go to Anchorage, where employees who need it will be provided temporary housing, he said.

Work shifts have been lengthened considerably to reduce the amount of travel to and from the mine. For in-state employees, the new schedule is six weeks on duty and two weeks off, Stannell said. For the approximately 150 out-of-state employees, the schedule is four weeks on duty, allowing for a two-week quarantine in Anchorage, he said.

Red Dog, which is on Native-owned land, has about 500 full-time Teck employees and 150 contractors, Stannell said. About 100 of the workers live in nearby northwestern Alaska communities, he said.