Call of the wild

Science & technology

Growing up in a small suburb of Washington, D.C., Kaitlyn Payne figured she would eventually work and live in a big city. But these days, mass transit is not an option, as her worksite in remote northern Alaska is 60 miles from the nearest village. For most of the year, Point Thomson is accessible only by ice road or plane, apart from a brief, ice-free summer season when boats can dock.

Payne is an environmental engineer responsible for ensuring that Point Thomson, which produces a form of light oil called condensate, complies with local, state and federal regulations.

Payne earned her biosystems engineering degree from Clemson University in 2012 and caught the eye of ExxonMobil with her senior project, a method for converting some of the school’s vehicle fleet to run on recycled cooking oil.

After a couple of years learning the ropes in Texas, she was asked to move to Alaska to support the construction of Point Thomson. As an environmental professional, her responsibilities included everything from securing complex air permits to developing programs that minimize the potential for employee interactions with polar bears.

Alaska, and particularly the North Slope, is a sensitive environment that is highly regulated by federal, state and local government agencies. Due to its uniqueness, there are many North Slope-specific regulations that do not apply anywhere else in the United States, including seasonal restrictions on tundra travel and monitoring for polar bear dens. Navigating these complex rules while the winter weather plunges to -50 degrees Fahrenheit is not easy, but there’s no place that Payne would rather be.

Payne and other members of the Point Thomson team a

Payne (bottom left) and other members of the Point Thomson team and community of Kaktovik at a meeting in Kaktovik, Alaska, December 2015. Kaktovik is located 60 miles east of the Point Thomson facility.

“For an environmental engineer, it is an incredible opportunity to live and work in a place as unique as Alaska, especially on the North Slope. I have a new perspective on the challenges facing the Arctic and how governments, communities and industry can work together,” Payne said.

Part of the fun comes from the technology that the environmental team has championed to minimize Point Thomson’s footprint. They piloted a first-of-its-kind military-grade ground surveillance radar system designed to warn employees of approaching polar bears from up to 1,000 yards away. Once the radar picks up on a bear’s movement, a camera monitors the animal. If it comes close enough to the worksite, protocols help limit interaction and keep both bears and humans safe.

Payne and her team also map out the locations of snow dens where pregnant bears stay during the winter to give birth to their cubs. ExxonMobil employs aircraft with specialized forward-looking infrared cameras that sense heat from the dens to help pinpoint — and avoid — their locations.

Polar bear sighted near the Point Thomson project.

A polar bear sighted near the Point Thomson project.

Payne is also excited about piloting the use of satellites to monitor caribou and other animals. High-resolution satellite data can be collected without disturbing animals on the ground and has the potential to be more cost-effective and accurate than current methods, thanks to the area’s high level of satellite coverage. It’s data that the team is looking to share with the academic and science community, too.

“It’s in our best interest to challenge ourselves to find better ways of employing technology to meet regulatory commitments. It leads us to work more safely and efficiently, and improve our relationships with agencies and local communities,” Payne concluded.

Tags:   AlaskaKaktovikPoint Thomsonpolar bearssafetywilderness safetywildlife
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