Refuge Notebook: Why commercial oil and gas operations occur on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge photo The compressor plant in the 8,000-acre Swanson River Field on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is now owned and managed by Hilcorp Alaska.

A recent editorial in the Peninsula Clarion pointed out that commercial oil and gas operations are not typically the first thing that comes to mind when considering practices that are acceptable on a National Wildlife Refuge. Yet, what new-comers to the Kenai Peninsula don’t realize is that oil and gas extraction has been a part of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge since 1957 with the discovery of oil in what is now Alaska’s oldest oil field, the Swanson River field.


There are actually three production units leased within the Refuge. The largest and most productive is the Swanson River Field (7,880 acres), followed by the Beaver Creek Field (4,960 acres) and Birch Hill (1,240 acres). All three units are currently operated by Hilcorp Alaska.

Why do oil and gas operations occur on our Refuge? The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 authorized the issuance of oil and gas leases on and within the U.S. including “lands reserved for wildlife refuges providing Executive Orders did not restrict such disposition.” Many years later, in 1971, passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act had profound effects on the Refuge. Under this act and associated settlement agreements, the Cook Inlet Region Incorporated (CIRI) was conveyed entitlement to over 200,000 acres of subsurface estate on the Refuge.

Federal regulations require that adequate and feasible access be granted to lands or resources which CIRI and other Alaska Native regional corporations may own within refuges, subject to reasonable terms and conditions to minimize environmental effects. In 1980, CIRI developed a surface use plan, subsequently approved by the Refuge, that provides some assurance that resource extraction occurs in the least environmentally damaging way possible in order to protect natural and other values of the Refuge. The development of an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), as appropriate, under the National Environmental Policy Act provides specific terms and conditions for proposed projects.

Recently, CIRI leased a portion of its oil and gas estate to NordAq Energy, Inc., to develop gas discovered in an area of the Refuge where no such work had previously occurred.  A 2.7-mile section of a gravel road will be constructed on the Refuge to access 6.5 acres for a drilling/production pad and natural gas gathering lines. The final EIS was issued in May 2013 and the preferred alternative was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in June.

Similarly, approval for 3-D seismic exploration on 142,000 acres of CIRI-owned minerals within the Refuge was recently granted to Apache Corporation after an Environmental Assessment was completed in July 2013. Apache is using advanced seismic technology to conduct their work, with the drilling of source point holes, deployment of receivers, and source point detonation to occur in winter.  Apache will likely begin work on the Refuge in early 2014.

With any oil and gas exploration or development activity proposed on the Refuge, we must consider potential implications to fish and wildlife that dwell on and migrate through the Refuge as well as their habitats.  Direct, indirect and cumulative effects of industrial activities on air quality, noise levels, hydrologic flows, biological and water resources, socioeconomics, fire management, the spread of invasives, and habitat fragmentation are issues we grapple with.

While best management practices can be implemented and conditions required to minimize potential effects, past experience has proven that no matter what we do to limit such impacts, we are never fully successful.  Remediation and restoration are pivotal aspects of any terms and conditions that are part of approvals given by the USFWS for work on Refuge lands.

One of the more harmful effects of past oil operations was not the actual drilling, but the defacing of the natural state by exploratory seismic operations. Up until the recent advent of nodal seismic recording system technology, which Apache will use, seismic operations were arguably the most difficult portion of the oil program to manage and control. More than 1,800 miles of seismic lines of varying widths mar the Refuge’s landscape, a legacy of a half century of commercial oil and gas development.  These linear scars are not only unsightly but can act as corridors for trespass, erosion and the spread of invasive plants. 

Contaminants are also a harsh reality both during and after commercial oil and gas operations.  Ultimately, the Refuge will be faced with having to manage much of the remediation of decades’ worth of hydrocarbon leaks and spills, and releases of toxic volatile organic compounds such as xylene, toluene and benzene, which have contaminated soils and groundwater.  Persuading industry to plug and abandon inactive wells also continues to be a challenge once these fields have played out, along with removal of idle equipment and pipelines that are no longer in use but left beneath the surface of public lands. 

It’s a difficult act to balance the Refuge’s mandates to conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity and to provide opportunities for fish and wildlife-oriented recreation, while allowing oil and gas development as required by federal regulation.   The Refuge will continue to partner with industry well into the new millennium, seeking transparency, realistic assessments, and the best available technology to find common ground within the framework of our respective but often conflicting missions.

As a Fish and Wildlife Biologist, Lynnda Kahn specializes in industrial activities on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at or