Swanson River drilling fuels debate over ANWR

Taking refuge

Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2002

To drill or not to drill in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the thorniest issues being debated in Congress.

Meanwhile, hardly anyone is talking about oil drilling already under way in-side an Alaska wildlife refuge. And those who are talking are saying wildly divergent things.

The only refuge in Alaska now hosting drilling is the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Its Swanson River Oil Field and satellite sites on the northern Kenai Peninsula have been producing for more than four decades.

The Swanson River Oil Field was Alaska's first and played a role in the drive to statehood. The field has seen good times and bad, and now is nearing the end of its productive lifespan.

Kenai and Arctic refuges: a quick comparison

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

Size: 2 million acres

Established: 1941 (as the Kenai Moose Range; name changed in 1980)

Latitude: 61 North

Legal status of oil development: Permitted unless refuge managers demonstrate harm and ban it

Main species of concern: brown bear, lynx, moose, wood frogs

Cumulative oil production: 233 million barrels (through July 2001)

Estimated oil reserves remaining: 3 million to 5 million

First well: 1957

Peak production: about 40,000 barrels per day in 1969

Production (as of July 2001): 1,830 barrels per day

Current drilling area: 11,500 acres (original leases totaled 104,755 acres)

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Size: 19.5 million acres

Established: 1960

Latitude: 70 North

Legal status of oil development: Forbidden unless Congress passes a specific authorization

Main species of concern: caribou, polar bears, musk oxen, nesting waterfowl

Estimated oil reserves: 5 billion barrels feasible to extract based on a price of $18 a barrel

Estimated peak production: one million barrels per day in about 2030, if development approval were given now

Potential drilling area: 1.5 million acres

-- Sources: Scientific American, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil and Gas.

What its history implies for potential development in ANWR is debatable.

Oil drilling advocates cite the Kenai refuge as an example of the compatibility of wilderness and development. Drilling opponents say the opposite. Others doubt it is relevant at all.

"Most of the stuff is really biased, one way or the other. Obviously this issue is one that is kind of sensitive," said Robin West, manager of the Kenai refuge.

"You can look at oil development through a variety of lenses. Some people think it is beautiful; others think it is catastrophic. And they are looking at the same thing."

Kenai oil field has had problems

Over the years, more than 300 leaks or spills have been reported at the Swanson River and associated Beaver Creek industrial sites, ranging from a few gallons leaked onto the ground to a major explosion in 1972, which subsequently led to a $40 million polychlorinated biphenol (PCB) cleanup that wasn't done until 20 years later. Other incidents may have been undetected or unreported, according to a report released one year ago by Tiffany Parsons of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the national refuge system.

Although spills still occur, the current operator, Unocal, has pursued an aggressive program to repair and replace aging pipelines. Even skeptics admit that the safety record has improved over the years. Over the same time, the field has provided reliable, high-paying jobs for two generations of peninsula workers.

In 1997, the U.S. Department of Interior gave Unocal a National Health of the Land award for environmental excellence at the Swanson River site.

"The company was commended for its leadership and collaboration with both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," according to a statement from Unocal.

On the other hand, national environmental groups such as the National Audubon Society and The Wilderness Society put the Kenai refuge on their lists of refuges in trouble. They cite continuing oil and gas development within the refuge among other factors as cause for concern.

According to records from the Alaska Department of Environmen-tal Conservation, projects such as evaluating old waste-disposal sites and getting rid of PCBs from the explosion are complete. But others, such as removing PCBs under a building and dealing with oily soil under flares, tanks and a shop site remain unresolved. The field is dotted with test wells monitoring for PCBs, xylene and contaminated groundwater. Parsons' report reviewed and assessed contamination in the refuge.

"The oil and gas fields in operation on the refuge may pose the largest contamination threats to the refuge," she concluded.

Industry boosters see success

Marathon Oil manages the gas fields at Beaver Creek and Wolf Lake. The gas drilling operations are expanding -- with the sanction of refuge staff. Production inside the Kenai refuge is going smoothly, said Bill Barron, Marathon's operations superintendent.

The ANWR debate and how it might involve the KNWR has not come up among his staff.

"We haven't had any discussion of that internally," he said. "One is in an arctic condition, and the other is in the subarctic. ... From a technical perspective, it is not even relevant."

Barron did say that working with the Fish and Wildlife Service has been a positive experience. The refuge staff is just one more group involved in decisions. When Marathon and the refuge disagree, they work together to find better solutions.

"I can't speak highly enough of working with Robin and his folks," he said.

In 1995, the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. published a report touting the advantages of development in ANWR.

"While (the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) required special evaluations in the ANWR Coastal Plain before oil and gas leasing could be carried out, it is important to note that similar activities have been permitted in other refuges as a matter of course," it said in the introduction.

"... One example of oil and gas development within a refuge is the Swanson River field within the Kenai National Moose Range (sic) where oil has been produced since the 1960s without significant adverse environmental effects."

Alaska Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski echoes that viewpoint when urging his congressional colleagues to pass legislation authorizing drilling in ANWR.

"Even with drilling beginning in the late '50s ... there has been little impact that anyone knows of," said Chuck Kleeschulte, Murkowski's press spokesperson. "I am not aware of anyone saying drilling at Swanson River has affected moose habitat."

Records show that more than 40 refuges across the nation have some oil and gas commercial activity, and their track record is good, he said.

Kleeschulte said Murkowski is confident that modern safeguards and technologies will be adequate to allow drilling and wildlife to coexist in ANWR, and that the history of development in the Kenai refuge bolsters that view.

The arctic coastal plain and the Kenai refuge are quite different from each other, he said.

Winter, when the arctic wildlife migrates away or hibernates, would provide an opportunity for industrial activity without disturbing animals. For example, the caribou herds that many people have expressed concern about are only in the area for a few months in the summer.

"You have about a six-week season there as opposed to year-round at Swanson River," he said. "... In some ways, drilling in ANWR would be even easier than on the Kenai."

Critics see problems

Pam A. Miller, an environmental consultant and president of Arctic Connections, said the Swanson River Oil Field is an argument against opening ANWR.

"I think we can learn from the Kenai refuge that it is not wise to put the oil development in an area dedicated to wildlife," she said. "... To say there is no significant impact ignores the loss of habitat, the pollution and the incremental changes."

Miller toured the field last summer. One problem she saw that would also apply in the arctic is habitat fragmentation. It can be difficult to see in the forests of Swanson River, but some animals avoid areas where they have to cross roads or can hear machinery.

"It has been piecemeal loss of habitat over many decades," she said.

Miller said the industry can and should do better in the Kenai refuge, and failures there suggest that pledges about environmentally friendly technologies for the North Slope are unrealistic. She called the advocates' claims of responsible development disingenuous.

Storage pits at Swanson River are an example, she said.

"Even though this is a national wildlife refuge, they were not using state-of-the-art technologies," she said. "What we see today on the peninsula is not the best practices."

Miller said chronic spills and incremental damage are hidden, long-term threats associated with oil and gas development. She said the current facilities at the North Slope average more than a spill a day.

Disturbances to wildlife can be more direct, as well. Miller pointed to the Kenai oil field as an example of potential bear problems. In February of 1998, a worker on a seismic crew north of Sterling died when the crew woke up a hibernating bruin and it attacked him.

Biologists and environmentalists express concerns that seismic testing and oil field development could disrupt polar bears that den along the coast in ANWR.

Miller also critiqued the lack of solid information.

"If they really wanted (Swanson River) to be a good example, they would be doing more baseline studies," she said. "I think the problem on the Kenai is you did not have have studies before, and you do not have ongoing studies now to detect changes."

All around the nation, research to monitor oil development effects has been inadequate, she said.

"What it shows is, it's not a priority," she said.

Making comparisons is tricky

West is skeptical of people on either side of the ANWR debate trying to use the Kenai refuge situation to make their points.

For example, he said that a fall disagreement between development advocates with Arctic Power, a group set up to lobby for ANWR development, and a Massachusetts congressman, who called the KNWR "the Achilles heel" of plans to open ANWR, was based on a misinterpretation. Democratic Rep. Ed Markey put out a press release noting that drilling proponents omitted Swanson River from a report he commissioned about oil development in refuges.

Markey cited a 1999 KNWR document as saying oil and gas work was incompatible with the refuge.

But West, who issued the document, said the incompatibility determination referred only to a specific, limited proposal. Plans changed, and he characterized the document as moot and not very significant.

In the meantime, new gas wells are being developed in the Kenai refuge, and new research raises concerns about the industry's long-term environmental effects.

For example, preliminary results of a study of wood frogs found unusual levels of deformities from a pond near the oil field. But West was cautious in drawing conclusions.

"For the most part, we really don't know yet. If there are any implications for the oil fields remains to be seen."

West pointed out major differences between the Swanson River Oil Field and the ANWR coastal plain. Looking at other North Slope fields is a better comparison, he said.

"Certainly what they have done at Swanson River is not what they would likely do at Arctic if it were ever developed," he said.

For one, the regulations governing drilling in the two federal refuges date from different eras. Drilling began at Swanson River under a minerals leasing act dating from the 1920s. The industrial activities were grandfathered in before the former Kenai moose range became part of the national wildlife refuge system in 1980.

Cook Inlet Region Inc. holds additional subsurface rights. CIRI development also is exempt from compatibility rules, although the refuge management has some say in surface use.

"But it's not something we could say 'no' to," West explained. "It goes back to decisions made in the '50s primarily."

In contrast, ANWR was set up specifically to protect wilderness starting in the Eisenhower Administration. It is governed by the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, as amended in 1997, and clauses were written into ANILCA specifically to keep industry away.

Modern requirements that development be "compatible" are far more stringent than they were when the older field was first drilled.

"The decision-making process that allowed oil and gas development in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is not the same," West said.

For another, the physical and biological conditions are very different. After all, the two places are nearly a thousand miles apart.

On the Kenai refuge, developers make roads and structures atop glacial gravel. In ANWR, they would need to build ice roads and cope with permafrost. Enormous migratory herds of caribou react differently than solitary moose. The tundra may show scars more easily.

"It's just a different environment," West said. "It's apples and oranges."

In the meantime, he said, he is wary of the growing heat over ANWR and how that debate might affect the Kenai refuge.

"I can't think of anyone who has really called me," he said. "... I'm kind of surprised we haven't been brought into the limelight a little bit more."

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