Up Swanson River Road, deep in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and away from the public eye is the Swanson River Oil Field, one of Alaska's most historic industrial sites -- and maybe one of its most controversial.
A diverse group representing the oil industry, oversight agencies and environmental organizations toured the facilities Friday. It was a pleasant outing on a sunny, summer day. But the visitors were on a serious mission.
They came to investigate what conditions at the Swanson River complex imply for proposed future oil and gas extraction in the Kenai refuge and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"We've become concerned about increasing levels of oil and gas exploration on wildlife refuges," said Noah Matson, from the national environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.
Matson, the manager of the organization's refuge program, had flown up from Washington, D.C., specifically for Friday's tour at Swanson River, operated by Unocal, and at the nearby Beaver Creek Gas Field, operated by Marathon.
He noted that the oil and gas field in the Kenai refuge is one of the oldest and largest in the nation. Although he has toured industrial sites in wildlife refuges in other states, this was the first he had seen in Alaska and his first tour led by industry representatives.
Matson was grave as he examined roadside plants and took photographs of containment pits and sheet-metal buildings.
Congressional people talk about refuge drilling as a model program. His group wants to dispel myths about that, he said.
"The damage tends to be chronic, small things that add up. Over the long term, it has a big impact," he said.
Technology vs. time
Chris Myers, Unocal's manager for the field, stressed that safety and care for the environment are priorities.
"Unocal is committed to being a viable, prudent, good-neighbor producer," he told the guests during an introductory briefing at the field's main office.
Myers described how the company has been working, since he came on board in 1995, to combat the deterioration of the aging facilities, many dating to the 1950s and 1960s.
"We started a progressive pipe replacement program," he said
Production technician Larry Greenstein explained some of the details.
Their first approach to refurbishing corroding lines was to insert plastic sleeves that protect the metal pipe from contact with oil and process water, a corrosive brine that comes out of wells mixed with the oil.
One complication is that natural gas can pass through the sleeves and build up between the liner and and the outer pipe. If too much gas pressure accumulates in the space, it can collapse the liner, which impedes oil flow, or crack it, which can cause leaks, he said.
Unocal also uses cathodic protection to offset corrosive electrochemical forces on the outside of the pipes.
The crew tests the lines for signs of cracks, Greenstein said.
"If we have an indication that a line has failed, with respect to liquid getting through, it goes on the top of the priority list for replacement," he said.
Automated systems for detecting leaks have drawbacks. They do not work well with gas. And they are less reliable under the variable pressures encountered at Swanson River, he said.
Most product flow at the field still is checked by hand, with operators comparing inflows and outflows to make sure they match. If the numbers don't add up, the staff starts shutting valves and pinpointing leaks, he said.
Since 1996, the company has been replacing old metal pipelines with heavy-duty metal, fiberglass and sometimes plastic piping.
"At the end of (this) summer, there will be no metal contacting process water," he said.
The system for collecting liquids is completely redone throughout the field. For the main flow lines, the company is working down its priority list, beginning with damaged lines and those closest to the Swanson River itself.
Greenstein estimated that the entire renovation will be complete in about two years.
"All the high-risk ones are done. We are now working on the medium-risk ones," he said.
Myers drove the visiting environmentalists around, answering questions and explaining landmarks. He reminded them that techniques have improved, allowing modern oil field workers to accomplish more with a smaller "footprint" on the land.
For example, he pointed out a gravel pad by an active well and told them new pads are much smaller in area.
"We don't need that much room to work on a well now," he said.
All the changes seem to be paying off.
According to records from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, 14 spills were reported at the field in 1995 and 1996 involving crude oil, antifreeze, drilling muds and process waters. Line ruptures and corrosion were commonly listed as causes. But neither has been reported since January 2000.
Plans for the future
Unocal has plans to both shrink and expand Swanson River-area operations.
On the one hand, the company is starting to plan the shutdown of exhausted wells and obsolete facilities. On the other hand, it is planning exploratory wells east of the current field and seeking a pipeline or road corridor to ship out natural gas from the new Birch Hill Unit to the north.
Myers said it is too early to predict a time line for shutting down the core of the old field. He is dealing with it year by year, but conversations with the wildlife refuge, which manages the surface, and the Bureau of Land Management, which handles subsurface leasing, are turning toward the phase-out.
He noted that when production began at Swanson River, people predicted it would yield about 200 million barrels of oil and close down around 2000. It has produced 220 million barrels of oil so far, and now also produces commercial natural gas. But its days are numbered.
The field now produces about 1,700 barrels of oil (down from 40,000 at its peak in 1969) and 49 million cubic feet of gas per day. Some of the gas was imported from elsewhere years ago and injected to pressurize oil wells. That gas is being recycled and sold now, he said.
Even though the oil production is down, the gas output is 20 times the amount it would take to heat the entire city of Kenai on the coldest day of the year, he said.
"We heat a lot of houses. Let's put it that way," he said.
Gas prices and new, more efficient extraction technologies will determine how long Swanson River remains a viable oil and gas field.
"What is really going to drive this field is economics," Myers said.
His current recommendation is for the company to start "backing out" of the field while it is still producing, instead of waiting for it to be completely drained.
"Oil prices are up. Let's start now," he said.
Jim Hall, the refuge's assistant manager and a liaison to its industry tenants, said it is time to start looking at long-range plans to convert parts of the field to trails and campgrounds. The odds of restoring the area to its original wilderness configuration are slim, he said.
"There is no way the public would let us pull Swanson River Road out now. It is too popular for recreational use," he said.
Bob Shavelson, of the environmental group Cook Inlet Keeper, requested Friday's tour. He said he approves of phasing out the old facilities but is worried about Unocal's plans to open new wells in the area.
Draft environmental impact statements are in the works for both proposed expansions and are due to come before the public in 2002.
Shavelson criticized the timing and the process. The process is too fast, too far from public scrutiny and unfairly tilts control toward the oil industry and away from the biologists, he said.
"(The refuge managers) are not driving the bus. ... I feel the industry is driving the process. ...
"This is the Bush-Cheney energy policy on the ground. It's about putting the blinders on anything except oil and gas production," he said.
"What I saw (Friday) at Swanson River are exactly the types of impacts we think are not appropriate for a wildlife refuge. ...
"Ultimately, I would like to see the refuge returned to its natural state. In the meantime, I'd like to see (the industry) use the latest technology in exploration and significant investment in upgrading their facilities," he said.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.