Drilling plan draws concerns

Posted: Monday, April 16, 2001

Officials with Phillips Alaska Inc. told an Anchor Point crowd Wednesday that a planned drilling operation a quarter-mile from Stariski Creek will not endanger the environment nor have much of an impact on nearby residents.

But the 50 people who crowded into a Chapman Elementary School classroom for the presentation remained skeptical that exploratory well dig will be as trouble-free as Phillips suggests.

Audience questions ranged from the chance of blowouts and oil or fuel spills and the preventative measures Phillips plans to take, to how much truck traffic the drilling operation will generate on the Sterling Highway. Others wanted to know where supplies for the operation will come from and whether the company or its subcontractors will hire locally.

Phillips is in the process of acquiring permits for the well. If successful, digging could begin by September and conclude by spring of next year.

Phillips plans to dig a vertical well on the bluff overlooking Cook Inlet just north of Anchor Point but at a certain depth, the drilling will begin angling underneath the inlet toward oil-bearing strata at a depth of 7,000 feet, but roughly three miles off shore. An offshore well drilled back in 1967 indicated the presence of oil.

Geologist Bob Swenson, Phillips' project leader, said the Cosmopolitan Project, as it is known, will be safe. The geology and the fact the oil under the inlet has a low gas-to-oil ratio makes the chance of a blowout small, he said.

Of the 1,068 wells drilled in the inlet region over the past 50 years -- the majority before 1968 -- only five had had blowouts, all of those from wells dug in search of gas specifically. There isn't much chance of hitting quantities of gas, he said.

"We understand quite well what the subsurface geology looks like," Swenson said.

There is gas in the strata below the inlet, but the angle of the drilling will terminate the bore well below the main gas pockets, he said.

The project will be done from land owned by John Hansen.

Modern drilling techniques will create a small "footprint" of no more than 11 acres, plenty to support several directionally drilled wells if the project called for that.

"Twenty years ago, this would have been impossible," Swenson said. Today, he added, this "is not that aggressive a well (drilling operation)."

Swenson, and Phillips' team drilling leader Paul Mazzolini, said the company explored drilling offshore but decided against it. Then they began an onshore site selection process, looking for property that was flat, somewhat protected by trees, far enough from Stariski Creek and which would minimize impact on nearby residents.

They chose Hansen's land because it fit that bill. It also was nearby a gravel pit owned by Quality Asphalt Paving Inc., a company from which they are seeking an easement, so they can use the pit as an access road, limiting the amount of roadway they will have to build, Phillips officials said.

Studies done by Phillips showed there were no archeological sites nor any wetlands to worry about. The drilling rig will be at least 500 feet from the nearest eagle's nest. The bluff is stable and well covered in vegetation.

Anchor Point resident Linda Feiler asked about drilling muds, how they'd be handled and whether they were toxic. Mazzolini said muds and cuttings will be injected into a strata of earth at 3,700 feet. Nothing will be left on the surface. However, he also said the muds are not toxic.

He also said the company will have all necessary contingency plans in place before drilling. Other safety measures will include surrounding diesel fuel tanks with containment pits able to hold more than the tanks.

If the exploration is successful and finds commercially exploitable quantities of oil, the company will have to begin another round of the permit process to put the well into production.

Bob Shavelson of the Cook Inlet Keeper, an environmental watchdog group, said the current law divides the time between exploration and production into different permitting periods.

While there may be reasons, he said he would prefer the permitting process "took an holistic view" and sought to answer the many technical and environmental question surrounding not only exploration, but production operations, as well as a single whole.

Swenson said there certainly was logic in that, but there also are so many unknowns that cannot be answered until after exploration is completed and a scientific analysis of what's found can be made, that answering detailed permitting questions having to do with production before exploration has occurred doesn't work.

Some residents were concerned when they heard as many as 50 vehicles a day would come to and from the site. They wondered if they would be rolling at the same time as school buses. Swenson said not all those trucks would be large, some would be pickups.

He also said, however, he "hadn't considered" the impact of traffic on school bus operations.

Most of the supplies will come from the north, he said, though some may come through Homer and Anchor Point.

The company plans to drill a water well to supply the 16,000 to 20,000 gallons per day necessary to drill. The water does not have to be potable. Drinking water will be trucked in, he said.

Some 50 to 70 people will be employed during the expected 100-day drilling operation.

Mazzolini said the 152-foot high drill rig will be visible from some angles. Its diesel engines will make some noise, but they are new.

Drilling will continue round the clock. What gas that is found, and much is not expected, may be burned off with a flare, but that should only last a week or two.

If oil is found, the most likely way to move it from the site would be by pipeline north to Tesoro's refinery in Nikiski. An offshore loading facility or trucks are other, less likely options, Swenson said.

Any oil drilling operations entails risk.

"You can't 100 percent guarantee us (that a spill) is not going to happen, can you?" she asked.

Swenson said there was no way to make an absolute guarantee, but that they are committed to making it as safe as possible.

"We can't come along and make a mess and expect to continue to do business here," he said.

Phillips has been present in the Cook Inlet oil industry for 31 years.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Homer News.

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