Proposal by Unocal challenged

Posted: Tuesday, August 06, 2002

A proposal by Unocal and its partners Marathon Oil Company and Cook Inlet Region Inc. to expand natural gas production at the Swanson River Field in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has drawn a challenge from a coalition of conservation groups.

The project, calling for two satellites to the existing Swanson River Field, is scheduled to be built in stages.

If all stages are accomplished it would entail 11.7 miles of new gravel roads, an adjacent buried pipeline and utility system, an additional 3.1 miles of buried pipeline and utility system adjacent to existing roads, three new drill pads and the upgrade of a fourth, according to a draft environmental impact statement prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act that was released recently.

Conservation groups oppose plans for expansion 'Wildlife impacts will occur over the life of the proposed project and could be difficult to fully mitigate. Adverse impacts on vegetation, wetlands, land use and recreation are also considered to be potentially significant.'

--Draft environmental impact statement prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act

Full development would require approximately 278,600 cubic yards of gravel from material sites within the refuge designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The East Swanson River Satellite would be about five miles east of the main field, while the North Swanson River Satellite would be positioned approximately three miles north of the existing field.

The development companies have applied to the Fish and Wildlife for a right-of-way permit for the project. The Bureau of Land Management, which issues drilling permits where federal oil and gas leases already exist, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits for placing fill materials in U.S. waters, also are involved in the permitting process.

A public comment period ends Oct. 1. A public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 5 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Aspen Hotel in Soldotna. An additional public hearing is set for Sept. 17 from 2 to 4 p.m. in Arlington, Va.

The Alaska Center for the Environment, Cook Inlet Keeper, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, Trustees for Alaska and The Wilderness Society have joined forces to challenge the George W. Bush administration's proposal to expand natural gas drilling inside the refuge.

In a press release Monday, the groups contended that expanding drilling in the refuge is "contrary to the public interest," and reflected "a shortsighted energy strategy which emphasizes fossil-fuel production over energy conservation."

"Once again, we see the Bush administration siding with powerful multinational oil and gas corporations at the expense of the public interest," said Bob Shavelson, director of the Homer-based water-quality watchdog group Cook Inlet Keeper.

"The Bush-Cheney energy plan will turn this national wildlife refuge into a national pollution refuge."

Shavelson noted a 2001 contaminants assessment done by Fish and Wildlife biologists that found "a disturbing historical pattern of spills, leaks and pollution" in the relatively small portion of the refuge where oil and gas activities operated by Unocal and Marathon already exists.

"Since Unocal took over the Swanson River oil field in the Kenai refuge, it has spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil and toxic water into the surrounding wildlife habitat," said Randy Virgin, executive director of the Alaska Center for the Environment. "Should we really allow the same company to expand its damaging operations deeper into pristine areas of the refuge?"

According to the draft impact statement, the project would explore for new natural gas reserves and bring them to production to meet the rising energy needs of Cook Inlet-area consumers.

Cook Inlet Region Inc. owns the majority of coal, oil and gas resources in the project area garnered through conveyances under the Alaska Native Claims Settle-ment Act.

CIRI would receive royalty payments on gas produced from the new project. Under provisions of ANCSA, 70 percent of the revenues derived from such resource developments are to be shared with other Alaska Native regional corporations.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is considering several access alternatives and pipeline alignments as it evaluates the permit request. The draft impact statement also analyzed environmental consequences of the various alternatives.

A significant long-term impact would be excavating 278,600 cubic yards of gravel from up to five material sites and filling or otherwise disturbing more than 182 acres of refuge land, including more than 23 acres of wetlands, in order to build the roads, pipeline and pads, according to the draft. Eventually, those disturbances would be mitigated when the roads and pads were removed when production is no longer viable.

The Kenai refuge is considered a rich and diverse ecosystem that supports all five species of wild Pacific salmon and provides habitat to brown bear, moose, Dall sheep, wolf, lynx and numerous other animal and bird species, say the environmental groups.

The project is expected to affect brown bears and other wildlife.

"Wildlife impacts will occur over the life of the proposed project and could be difficult to fully mitigate," the draft impact statement said. "Adverse impacts on vegetation, wetlands, land use and recreation are also considered to be potentially significant."

Impacts to such things as water quality and quantity, fish and threatened or endangered species, cultural resources and subsistence were considered to be insignificant in the draft.

According to the environmental groups, Fish and Wildlife biologists have studied wood frog deformities in the vicinity of the Swanson River oil fields. Of 43 national refuges studied, the Kenai refuge showed the highest incidence of frog deformities in the nation, the environmental groups said.

"Deformed frogs and more than 350 spills, explosions and fires -- that's the legacy of oil and gas production at Kenai and that's the reason the Fish and Wildlife Service officially determined oil and gas activities incompatible with wildlife conservation three years ago," said Noah Matson, national wildlife refuge specialist with Defenders of Wildlife.

"Yet, here's the Bush administration authorizing a project that they admit in their own analysis will have significant impacts on brown bears and other wildlife, vegetation, wetlands and recreation. This project will bankrupt this Alaska refuge of its prized wildlife for the short-term profits of two out-of-state companies."

Contacted Monday afternoon, Unocal declined comment. Efforts to reach a spokesperson for Marathon by were unsuccessful.

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