The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission began two days of hearings Thursday on proposed new regulations on hydraulic fracturing. The petroleum industry said they would be among the toughest in the nation, if adopted.
Fracturing, also called “fracking” is a process where fluids and a material like sand are injected at high pressure down an oil well to fracture a producing rock formation and produce more oil.
The procedure is common and had been long practiced in the industry in Cook Inlet and the North Slope–about 1,000 wells have been fractured in Alaska over the years.
But those fractures were small-scale compared to those being done in shale oil and shale gas development in the Lower 48 states, where there has been intense local controversy and claims that chemicals in fluids being injected might seep up into water aquifers.
Now larger “frack” jobs are coming to Alaska, and the state’s conservation commission, which is responsible to ensure safe drilling practices, has decided it’s time to take a look at the rules.
“This is part of our periodic review of regulations covering well integrity and design, but we are also doing this because of public interest in fracturing,” said Cathy Foerster, chair of the commission.
Among other issues, the commission is interested in whether more public disclosure should be required of chemicals being injected.
Contamination of water aquifers near the surface isn’t an issue on the North Slope where there is permafrost to 2,000 feet underground, but on the Kenai Peninsula, where there is renewed drilling for oil and gas, there is no permafrost.
In opening comments Thursday the Alaska Oil and Gas Association said the proposed rules appear to go beyond what other states are requiring, or proposing to require, said Kara Moriarty, executive director of the association.
Industry concerns at Thursday’s hearing were focused on requirements to submit detailed information about the procedure before it was done, and on the composition of the fracturing fluids with no trade secret protection.
Other states require disclosure but provide ways that the exact formulas of the fluid compositions, which are trade secrets of vendors and contractors, can remain confidential.
Moriarty said her member companies compared Alaska’s proposal to rules in effect in Colorado, Texas and Pennsylvania and in California, where new rules are proposed.
The rules would add extensive new administrative burdens not necessary, Moriarty said, and potential delays, which is of most concern. Also, sections of the rules aimed at protecting water aquifers near the surface are not relevant for the North Slope, where most industry activity occurs and where there is permafrost, she said.
“The proposed new rules differ from other states in requiring pre-approval before conducting hydraulic fracturing, requirements for investigations into other wells in the area and groundwater monitoring before and after fracturing operations, and that copies of the fracture application be provided to landowners within one quarter mile of the operation.
“The sheer volume of detail could potentially strain the commission’s staff resources,” Moriarty said in her testimony.
The association suggested that operators be allowed to submit detailed reports on fracturing after the project is done, which could also contain information on composition of the fluids.
The disclosure could contain the chemicals injected and the proportions used “but not the formulas, the cocktails, of the fluids,” Moriarty said.
Members of the industry association now report the composition of their fluids to fracfocus.org, a voluntary website used for disclosure by industry.
However, Lois Epstein, Arctic programs director for The Wilderness Society, urged the commission to require full disclosure and not to rely on fracfocus.
“There is limited data submitted and it is post-fracture. You cannot aggregate the data and there are limits to its publication,” Epstein told the commission. “People who own property or who live or subsist near hydraulic fracturing operations have a right to know, in advance, about the chemicals that will be used. We oppose trade secret protections at the expense of public and workers’ health.”
Moriarty said the commission’s proposal also runs counter to other new state initiatives to streamline permitting in oil and gas drilling, including two bills — House Bill 77 and Senate Bill 59, which are in advanced stages of consideration in the Legislature.
Also, adding new procedures for the industry could impede exploration for natural gas in Southcentral where there are fears of gas shortages, she said.
“We see it as imperative that the regulations are compatible with the high levels of (drilling activities) required to meet Cook Inlet natural gas demands,” she said.
Dan Seamount, one of three members of the conservation commission, challenged Moriarty on the complaints over new administrative burdens.
“You model these fractures before you do them. You can just submit that,” Seamount said.
Pat Foley, external affairs vice president for Pioneer Natural Resources, said his company conducted the state’s first large-scale hydraulic fracturing last year on three wells at its Oooguruk field on the North Slope and experienced no delays in getting approval from the commission for well designs, under current rules.
Pioneer plans to fracture 10 wells this winter, five producers and five injection wells, Foley said, and plans similar numbers of fracture jobs over the next four to five years.
Great Bear Petroleum, another independent, plans large-scale fracturing to test flow rates in test wells the company has drilled into shale formations on the North Slope.
Until recently, hydraulic fracturing in Alaska, while common, has been smaller in scale than the fracture stimulating now being done in shale plays of the Lower 48. ConocoPhillips’s Alaska well manager Shon Robinson said the largest fracture stimulation his company has done involved 750,000 pounds of proppant material.
That is changing, however, with Pioneer’s plans to expand large-scale fractures to more wells at Oooguruk and a planned new project called Nuna. Foley said his company’s fracturing of three wells last year involved about 2 million pounds of proppant per well.
Seamount said those plans still don’t approach the scale of fracturing in the Lower 48 shale plays, where projects involving 6 million pounds of proppant are typical.
One member of the public, homeowner Barbara Breeze of Healy cited her concerns about contamination of water wells and urged the commission to adopt strong rules for fracturing.
“We’re very concerned about protecting drinking water aquifers and from other contamination from these operations. We like living here because the air and water is clean, and we don’t want that to change,” Breeze told the commission by telephone.