Gas exploration triggers concerns at Sutton

Posted: Tuesday, August 19, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) The prospect of natural gas trapped in coal beds in Sutton is fueling dreams of a new energy industry for Southcentral Alaska and triggering a wave of community concern about drinking water safety.

Evergreen Resources Alaska Corp. is asking the state to approve three-year shallow gas leases on nearly 57,000 acres near the Castle Mountain fault. That includes populated areas around Sutton and Lazy Mountain in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Wells like the ones Evergreen proposes to drill near Sutton, 11 miles northeast of Palmer, wring methane from coal seams by pumping out water that traps the gas underground.

Company officials say if the industry takes off here, it could provide natural gas for Anchorage and jobs for the region.

But some Sutton residents fear gas exploration could deplete or pollute their drinking water wells and create a grid of noisy wellheads and gravel roads crisscrossing the forest.

''Primarily, we're very concerned about how an industry like coal bed methane is laid over a residential area, and ... in places where people have chosen these areas for their tranquility and end-of-the-road nature,'' said Chris Whittington-Evans, a Lazy Mountain resident.

The state Department of Natural Resources is accepting public comment on Evergreen's 11 lease applications until Sept. 25. Evergreen Alaska is a wholly owned subsidiary of Denver-based Evergreen Resources Inc.

In the Lower 48, coal bed methane wells began popping up in the 1990s, fueled by high gas prices and the lure of a relatively untapped resource.

Controversy sometimes followed. Ranchers and other residents in Rocky Mountain states such as Wyoming and Colorado complained of gas-infused tap water catching fire, wells gone dry and shriveled trees, according to reports in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

But those wells were drilled by other companies, and Evergreen officials say their type of coal bed methane drilling is one of the cleanest around.

Evergreen puts in a well in less than three days using a modified water well drilling rig. Steel pipe is sealed with cement to safeguard groundwater, company officials said in recent interviews with the Anchorage Daily News.

Evergreen says it will use an air drilling process rather than mud to limit contamination. After water and gas escape, the water is to be reinjected deep into the ground, far below groundwater or drinking water wells.

Jack Ekstrom, an Evergreen Resources spokesman in Denver, said the company operates numerous wells in Colorado that have caused no well contamination or water depletion.

''You can have people tell untruths about you, or spread innuendoes, but we've never ever had that problem in Colorado,'' Ekstrom said. ''We certainly will not have it in Alaska, because that's not the way we do business.''

The Oil & Gas Accountability Project, an energy industry watchdog group based in Colorado, gives the company mixed reviews.

''We've had a lot of folks complaining about noise issues not resolved to their satisfaction,'' said Gwen Lachelt, the group's executive director. Then again, Lachelt added, she rarely gets calls from people praising oil and gas producers.

Drilling opponents in Sutton are also unhappy with a series of legislative actions that limited public involvement and local government oversight in coal bed gas projects in Alaska.

The Legislature last session approved a bill that lets the DNR commissioner overrule local land use regulations if gas drilling is deemed an ''overriding state interest.''

Legislators three years ago approved a new shallow gas leasing program that, among other things, reduced public notice requirements to publication on a single day in one statewide newspaper.

Robin McLean, a Sutton potter trained as a lawyer, says even if Evergreen operates cleanly and safely, other companies with less integrity could benefit from the new state policies and cause problems later.

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