Proposal calls for wells near Captain Cook State Park, Swanson River canoe trail

Unocal planning to drill on Kenai refuge

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2001

Unocal has applied to develop satellites to the Swanson River Oil Field and could be drilling exploratory wells by 2002, federal officials said.

The two satellite fields lie north and east of the present Swanson River field and inside the boundaries of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Jim Hall, deputy refuge manager, said Unocal proposes to drill from three gravel pads near Scaup Lake, just north of Captain Cook State Park, and from three pads surrounding Krein Lake, just west of the Swanson River canoe trails.

There has been previous exploration near Scaup Lake, and one of the proposed drilling sites is an existing pad where an old well struck natural gas. The other two pads would be new. There is no road yet to the existing pad.

To reach the drill sites, Unocal proposes to build roughly 13 miles of gravel roads and a bridge across the Swanson River just north of Krein Lake. Access would be from existing roads in the Swanson River field. If Unocal finds oil or gas, Hall said, it proposes to build production facilities by the drill sites and buried pipelines along the new roads.

The Kenai refuge holds surface rights to most of the land, but Cook Inlet Region Inc., an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act regional corporation, holds most of the subsurface oil and gas rights. Tyonek Native Corp. holds some surface rights on the route to the northern satellite, Hall said. Unocal holds a federal oil and gas lease for the Birch Creek Unit by Scaup Lake.

"This will be a venture into the wilderness," said Brian Anderson, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's realty division in Anchorage. "The coal, oil and gas belong to CIRI. They constitute an inholding. The refuge must allow access, but access can be conditioned to protect the resources of the refuge. For example, we could require restoration of surface disturbance and protection of wetlands and stream crossings."

Biologists said the areas Unocal wants to explore are wetlands, birch and spruce forest.

"We're concerned about moose habitat," Hall said. "We're concerned about fisheries issues, because this is a significant fishery watershed, the Swanson River. We're concerned about brown bears. We're concerned about forest-breeding birds. We're concerned about all the critters until we get a chance to look and see what's there.

"We want to assure that they get their oil and gas resource, because that's an economic boon to them, and we want to protect fish and wildlife because that's our job. If it was your property, you'd want it done as nicely as possible."

Because the development will have a significant impact on the human environment, Fish and Wildlife must develop an environmental impact statement, including public hearings and comments, Hall said.

"That gives us alternatives. This is what Unocal is proposing, but we may develop alternatives in the environmental impact statement process that are more acceptable to the public and maybe even more acceptable to Unocal," Hall said. "They will get to drill for oil and gas, but maybe not along the routes they've requested or using the methods they desire, because they may not be ecologically or economically feasible."

Unocal has proposed routes for roads, but the soil has not been tested and may not support roads, he said. Unocal has proposed the best sites for vertical wells, he said, but directional drilling could allow the well sites to be moved.

"All these things will be looked at when we go through the environmental impact statement process," he said.

Unocal submitted its application Jan. 29, beginning a 60-day clock for Fish and Wildlife to determine whether the application is complete. Once the application is deemed complete, Fish and Wildlife has 18 months to complete the environmental review and issue a right-of-way permit, Anderson said. Unocal must also obtain state and federal drilling permits, a wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a permit for the Swanson River bridge from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Hall said Fish and Wildlife will develop alternatives, publish a draft environmental impact statement and pick the best alternative. An environmental impact statement generally takes 12 to 18 months to complete.

Fish and Wildlife has scheduled public meetings on Unocal's application for March 13 at 7 p.m. at the Spenard Community Recreation Center in Anchorage and for March 15 at 7 p.m. at the Soldotna Senior Center. Written comments are due by March 30 to the Regional Director, Region 7, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1011 E. Tudor Rd., Anchorage, AK 99503.

Unocal officials could not be reached for comment.

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