State oil and gas officials are seeking public comment on proposed rules that would beef-up sections of existing hydraulic fracturing regulations to meet technological advances in the industry and to satisfy public interest.
Cathy Foerster, chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said that while hydraulic fracturing has been done in Alaska for decades — a quarter of all state wells have been fracked — the state wants to strengthen its standing regulations based on what other states in the Lower 48 are doing and considering other proposed regulations from federal agencies.
“We’re trying to make sure our regulations are adequate for the technologies that are being used and the operational practices that are being used and we want to address public concerns,” she said.
The proposed regulations would require a number of new rules, including public disclosure of the chemical make up of fracking fluids used, water sampling and analysis before and after fracking has occurred and notification of nearby landowners, operator and others. The regulations would also require increases in wellbore integrity and work to assure containment of hydraulic fracturing fluids.
Fracking is a process used for extraction of mainly gas, but also oil, that involves injecting large volumes of water mixed with sand and numerous chemicals at high pressures to fracture underground rocks that have trapped hydrocarbons. The freed hydrocarbons can then flow into the well bore and be collected.
Foerster said public curiosity in the process has not come from fracking in Alaska, but rather activity in the Lower 48.
Because of the rapid increase of gas production in North America, a public spotlight has been placed on the process, according to information from the International Energy Agency. That spotlight has lead to concerns about long term consequences of fracking, most commonly that of potential contamination of groundwater.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, fracking has well-known risks such as contamination of surface or groundwater from spills or faulty well construction, air pollution and stress on surface and ground water supplies due to the large amount of water used in the process.
The EPA, according to its website, is conducting a study aimed at better understanding potential impacts of fracking.
“Because natural gas development is increasing rapidly in many regions, prudent steps to reduce these impacts are essential now even as further research to understand potential risks continues,” the EPA wrote.
Residents are curious to know what fluids are being used in the process, the volumes of those fluids, where they are going and what they do with them after they finish a frack, Foerster said.
“With technology advances, hydraulic fracturing has gotten more sophisticated and they’re able to do more and better over time, but that in and of itself wouldn’t have caused heightened interest in Alaska,” said Foerster, noting fracking processes in Alaska haven’t changed much. “... People start asking, ‘Are they going to let fracturing come to Alaska?’ Well, sorry, that horse has already left the barn.”
Much of the concern that has been rising in the Lower 48 around fracking, Foerster said, relates to East Coast shale development and fears that water wells could be damaged by those processes near areas with large populations.
“If states would have good regulations like the ones I described that we have already got in place for well construction, mechanical integrity and pressure monitoring, those sorts of things don’t happen,” she said.
However, Foerster estimated accidents predominately have occurred in the fracking process in areas where the regulations haven’t been updated in quite some time.
“That hasn’t happened here and it won’t happen here because we stay on top of our regulations and we have good operators,” she said.
Foerster said there is not a lot of difference between the two areas of the state that could receive future fracking — Cook Inlet and the North Slope.
“Operationally a fracture is a fracture,” she said.
While there are no groundwater resources on the North Slope because of permafrost, there are in Cook Inlet. But Foerster said the new regulations are designed to keep fracking fluids in the place where they are used.
Moreover, Foerster said she was not concerned about potential areas where fracking has or could occur being close to population centers like those on the Kenai Peninsula.
“The public needs a teddy bear,” she said. “The chemicals that you can find in a hydraulic fracture you can find under your kitchen sink and they are in very small concentrations.
“In Alaska, they go into the formation and stay in the formation and what’s flowback is pumped into a disposal well. So it is pretty much a closed system. The biggest risk of having a chemical exposure in Alaska would be if a truck is hauling chemicals someplace and the truck had a wreck.”
The chemicals injected with the water during fracking help decrease friction so producers can pump more into the well without a large increase in pressure, Foerster said.
The IEA has recommended as part of its “Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas” report that regulators like states require scrutiny of fracking fluids.
It recommends rules to “measure and disclose operational data on water use, on the volumes and characteristics of waste water and on methane and other air emissions, alongside full, mandatory disclosure of fracturing fluid additives and volumes.”
According to reports, several states have required companies to disclose what chemicals are included in their fluids — a mixture once considered proprietary — including Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and Montana, among others.
If the proposed regulations are approved, Alaska would be among that group and producers would likely use the online tool known as FracFocus — found at fracfocus.org — to disclose their chemical ingredients, she said.
“Even though we don’t have these regulations in place, all Alaska operators that are currently performing hydraulic fractures are voluntarily inputting their data into FracFocus already,” she said. “But we want to make sure we have the regulations in place because there is no guarantee that one, the existing operators continue to do that, or two, that new operators would voluntarily do that.”
FracFocus on Wednesday showed data for 34 fracked wells on the North Slope, but none in the Cook Inlet. Other states listed in the website’s database have thousands of wells listed.
Moreover, Foerster said the state isn’t necessarily trying to be ahead of the curve in terms of regulations, rather just to be “ahead of the hysteria.” That, she said, it might come with development of source rocks — also known as oil shale — on the North Slope.
“For years and years we have considered shale as non-produceable,” she said. “Then 10 or 15 years ago people started playing with the shale and found that with hydraulic fracturing and other completion technologies they could make the shale give up the oil that it’s got.”
Great Bear, a company currently exploring the North Slope’s shale resource, could find great potential based on the size of the hydrocarbon resource already not trapped in source rocks in that area, Foerster said.
“If Great Bear is successful in their exploration and we start to have a whole bunch of shale oil fracturing then it is going to make headlines and we’re going to go, ‘What do we do now?’” she said.
Kara Moriarty, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said her organization is looking at the proposed regulations currently, but said she was not in a position to comment yet.
“I think it is important to note that we have been fracking wells here basically for the last 30-plus years,” Moriarty said. “So we just want to make sure these regulations continue to allow us to operate in a manner that protects the environment and the public’s concern.”
More information on the proposed regulation additions and changes may be found at http://doa.alaska.gov/ogc/hear/HydraulicFrac3.pdf
Residents can comment on the proposed regulations by email at www.doa.alaska.gov/ogc, by fax to 276-7542 or by mail to 333 W. 7th Ave. Suite 100, Anchorage, AK, 99501. Comments must be received by the AOGCC no later than 4:30 p.m. April 1. A public hearing to collect oral and written comments is scheduled for 9 a.m. to noon, April 4, 333 W. 7th Ave. Suite 100 in Anchorage.
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.