Setting a Tank on Alaska’s North Slope

As extreme as it gets…

Setting a tank for a new customer — it’s all in a day’s work, right? Most of the time, perhaps, but it wasn’t your everyday task for Dennis R. and Frank C. of Suburban Propane’s office in Homer, AK. After Suburban Propane had won the bid to install a tank and vaporizer at Eni Petroleum’s new work camp on Alaska’s North Slope, the challenges they faced were, shall we say, formidable.

First of all, there was the distance. To get an idea of what it took to access the jobsite, imagine that you live in Columbia, South Carolina. Then imagine that the tank installation you’re going to perform is in the neighborhood of Augusta, Maine. That’s the distance Dennis and Frank had to travel — 1123 miles to be exact — just to get to the site, and most of that was on gravel roads. At best, that’s two twelve-hour days of non-stop driving.

Then consider the weather conditions, if you can imagine what it’s like to work outdoors when the wind chill is -53°F. Which is, after all, why a vaporizer was needed in the first place: propane produces less vapor when cold, and won’t vaporize at all at temperatures below -44°F. In the extreme cold of Alaska’s North Slope, vaporizers are used up to six months of the year.

“We had hoped to do the installation in August,” Dennis relates, “and not in the miserable cold of winter. But delays in preparing the site, and in transporting the tank and vaporizer, repeatedly pushed back the schedule.” The tank, which came from Mexico, and the vaporizer, which was assembled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were shipped by truck to Tacoma, Washington, where they were loaded on a barge and brought to Whittier, Alaska. From there they were supposed to be trucked north by way of Anchorage, but upon inspection it was considered too risky to try and fit the vaporizer unit through the 2.5- mile tunnel that connects Whittier to Anchorage. “It’s a very expensive piece of equipment,” Dennis notes, “and the clearances were too slim to take a chance.” So while the tank continued on its intended course, the vaporizer was put back on a barge and floated across Prince William Sound to Valdez, from where it began its northward trek.

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“We didn’t get started until December,” says Dennis, “when it’s not only very cold, but there’s precious little daylight to work with. At best, you get a couple of hours of twilight conditions.” Keeping The Work Camps Warm And Cozy Suburban Propane’s customer on this project, Eni Petroleum, has recently started to produce oil from a newly-leased field on the North Slope, and the company needed additional housing for its workers. Their existing work camp holds 450 employees, while the new camp will eventually house 200 more. “We made four trips to the site over the course of the installation,” Dennis recalls, “three of which we drove and one when we flew. We finished the project in the second week of February. I won’t say how long it took us to thaw out afterwards.”

But while Dennis and Frank were getting warm, the oil workers were already staying that way in their new quarters. Now that it’s operating, it’s projected that up to 75,000 gallons of propane will flow through the vaporizer each year. Recognizing the difficulties that the two men faced, their boss — Greg B. — had these words of praise when the project was completed:

“I can’t say how much I appreciate the hard work by both Dennis and Frank for making this installation come together in extremely harsh winter conditions. Due to their dedication and understanding of the importance of customer service, this was made possible.” There’s another positive aspect to the project’s successful completion. “We know of two other oil companies that are looking at and evaluating this installation,” Dennis notes. “We could well be getting more invitations to bid on additional projects in the near future.”

Even if no new business materializes from the companies’ interest, Dennis knows that another trip to the frigid north is going to be necessary in the next year. “We have two tanks in the Alpine Field, which is farther out and accessible only via the ‘ice road,’ and they will need valve replacements by next March. That’s a trip that can only be made in winter, but if we’re lucky we might have more than just those valve jobs to do when we make it.”

2017-10-10T15:42:41-04:00