Road work ahead: Ice road provides access to drilling site on Refuge

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011

Employment in the central Kenai Peninsula has received a temporary spike as the result of an ice road currently under construction at the end of the Kenai Spur Highway, beginning at Captain Cook State Park.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
A large dump truck drives down an ice road Wednesday that crews are constructing north and east of Captain Cook State Park to support a natural gas drilling rig that will be operated by Nordaq Energy, Inc.

The ice road is being built by Peak Construction to provide access for an exploratory drilling rig to be placed on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The company overseeing the entire project is an independent oil and gas exploration company, NORDAQ Energy. The intent is to look for gas. Inlet Drilling will be doing the actual drilling under the overseer, All American Oilfield.

The project has involved many subcontractors, including Salamatof, Ocean Beauty, and Snug Harbor Seafoods, to make ice, and CIC Inc., Alaska Roadrunners, and South Central Paving to haul the ice. In addition, Peak has leased several snow-making machines from Alyeska Resort.

"This is the busiest we've been in a long time," said Tom Pellegrom, Peak area manager. He added that Peak is also working on a gas line in Anchor Point. He estimated that the ice road has probably resulted in the employment of about 150 people. "It's spread a lot of wealth around the Peninsula."

After last week's meltdown, which Pellegrom reported had a lot of people nervous, crews are now working around-the-clock in an effort to finish the road in the next two weeks. The drill rig will then be brought in, an exploratory well drilled, and the rig removed by mid-March.

Peak has been building ice roads at Prudhoe Bay for years. NORDAQ approached the company last year to construct the road, but didn't get the permitting process completed in time. Pellegrom said that one of the challenges they had to face was the fact the Refuge would not allow the ice from the local lakes to be chipped up and used, so he suggested the canneries.

"They have a tremendous capability to make ice," he said.

But the next challenge was getting permission for the water used by the canneries allowed to be placed on the Refuge. Until that testing was completed and the cannery water allowed, the project was issued a temporary water-use authorization by the Alaska Division of Mining, Land, and Water, according to Mike Walton, natural resource manager with the agency. He said the authorization was for several wells in the area, and for water to be taken from Salmo Lake and trucked to the canneries. With that water, the canneries began stockpiling ice during the end of December.

According to Claire Caldes, oil and gas liaison with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, the process of building the ice road had to wait until at least a foot and a half of snow covered the vegetation. She added that the Refuge wanted the road to follow wet areas as much as possible, as vegetation there grows back quicker than in treed areas. Any trees removed are to be replaced in June, she said.

Pellegrom said Peak used "Tuckers" and "Hagelands," which he described as "weird machines" that "drill the frost down with low ground pressure" to compress the snow.

Once the snow was packed, they began hauling in the ice chips and layered them with water, forming a 6-inch to 1-foot deep road about 18 feet wide.

Connie Green is one of dozens who are now working because of the ice road. She works 10-hour days driving and hauling ice from the plant in Kenai out the 25 miles to Captain Cook Park.

A drive-along with Green on a recent workday was beautiful once past Halbouty Road. She said that the state has been good about keeping the roads sanded, but not every day is so easy. When she drove in a snowstorm, the thick, wet snow clung to her windshield and she had to stop six times each trip just to clear it.

"These dump trucks are not really designed for winter driving," she said.

At the end of the road the drivers and Peak employees share the parking lot with snowmachiners taking the winter trail to Gray Cliffs Subdivision. Green has to stop at the guard shack -- designed to keep non-employees off the ice road -- and then continues her journey to empty her load. Once on the road, she drives to where the ice is stockpiled and empties her load. Graders then take the ice and smooth it on the road's surface, mixing it with water. Snow-making machines blast snow 50 feet into the air. Water trucks travel back and forth. All involved are thankful the temperature is once again hovering at 0 degrees.

Green turns around, heads back out the ice road and on to Salamatof Seafoods -- about an hour and 45 minutes turn around.

"I love this job," she said.

The road will extend almost three miles, crossing state park land, state land administered by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and Refuge land.

Caldes said the Refuge manages the surface, but the subsurface oil and mineral rights are owned by the Native corporation Cook Inlet Region Incorporated (CIRI) and the Refuge must provide access. She said NORDAQ purchased the lease from CIRI, which will get royalties if gas is found.

Pamela Russell, a permitting officer with the Division of State Parks, said she issued a permit for the company to cross Captain Cook State Park land, and added that NORDAQ had to get permission from both Tesoro and Marathon because it is using their pipeline right of way. Wyn Menefee, acting director of Mining, Land, and Water, said his agency also had to issue a land-use permit.

Pellegrom said NORDAQ has been the company that has gotten all the permits, but even with all the hoops to jump, it is still much cheaper to build an ice road than a gravel road, which would have to be removed if the well were dead.

Pellegrom said he can't remember ice roads being built here in the central Peninsula, but Peak built some on the west side of Cook Inlet several years ago.

"There's not much remote land-based exploration going on here anymore," he added.

NORDAQ has a website which lists offices in the United Kingdom, Anchorage and Kenai. Bob Warthen, president of the company, is a former Kenai Peninsula resident who used to work for Unocal. When contacted about the project, he would not give any information at this time, citing one last permit that still needed to be issued.

Click Here for a map of the approximate area of the future gas well.

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