Inlet's platforms could be used for other functions

Exploring options after oil

Posted: Friday, November 01, 2002

Since 1967 when the first production platform began tapping the oil and natural gas reserves of upper Cook Inlet, the Kenai Peninsula has been linked to the world's petroleum economy.

Today, 15 platforms suckle profits from Alaska's first major oil and gas reserve. But that reserve is considered a mature field now, perhaps closer to the end of its useful life than its auspicious beginning. Coming is the day when those giant engineering marvels will cease being commercially viable.

Only one platform has been shut down since operations began in the 1960s. Now, Unocal, which operates 10 inlet platforms, is considering shutting down two more. As the platforms slowly disappear, the peninsula's economy and its job market will change.

But now, some people are beginning to ask if there is life after oil and gas production for the Cook Inlet platforms. Could they be adapted for other energy-generating systems? Has anyone in the Alaska oil industry or the state given it any thought?

Under current state leases, the energy companies in control of the platforms are required to disassemble the structures and restore the inlet to its original state. According to state oil and gas officials, that operation could cost between $5 million and $10 million per platform, and that's if companies can save money by taking down more than one platform at a time.

But those platforms may have other uses as superstructures for other energy-producing systems, such as bases for wind generators, solar collectors or even as anchors for turbines that would produce electricity from the ebb and flow of Cook Inlet's tides.

"Could they be used in other ways? Yes, absolutely," said Nick Goodman, owner of an Anchorage energy consulting company called Northern Renewables. "There's a huge capital expense in removing those platforms. Without a doubt, you should be able to rationalize using them for some means of energy production."

Goodman's firm currently is working with a company called TDX Power, on a wind-energy project in St. Paul. He previously worked for a firm called Tidal Electric, which a few years ago explored the possibility of harnessing Cook Inlet tides for power. Tidal Electric holds patents on a particular kind of tidal power system that traps incoming water, and then when the tide is out, releases the trapped water through turbines. It's called a "low head" system.

That system requires a space of between 2 and 5 square kilometers and would not be appropriate for the smaller scale of a platform's footprint, he said. Could the platforms be used for different type of system? Yes, said Goodman.

Suspending turbines in the current to produce energy actually is an old idea. That's essentially what a waterwheel is. Goodman said there are small start-up companies specializing in employing modern technologies to tapping tidal energy. The platforms might well act as anchors for such systems, he said.

"Is it technologically possible? Absolutely. Is it likely to be a research and development project? Probably. Is it going to be competitive with current oil and gas? No," he said. However, in the long run such research could prove valuable indeed, he added.

"It's really about changing the energy conversation in Cook Inlet from consumption to conservation and promoting long-term jobs and sustainable health of local communities," said Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inlet Keeper, a Homer-based environmental research group. "I think there should be some type of feasibility study done."

No one knows if the offshore platforms would make useful bases for renewable energy stations, but considering the winds and tides of Cook Inlet, it is an option worth investigating, he said.

Bill Van Dyke, a petroleum manager with the Alaska Division of Oil and Gas, said no one yet has made any serious suggestions that a study be done or that platforms could be converted to other uses. Dismantling is the only option at this time, he said.

"Absent some other plan, the requirement is to remove the platforms," he said. "But that does leave open some other alternative uses."

Unocal is considering shutting down operations on the Dillon and Baker platforms located in the Middle Ground Shoal field in the center of the inlet roughly between East and West Foreland.

In September, Unocal spokeswoman Roxanne Sinz said an in-house group was working with regulatory agencies to determine what needs to be done before the platforms are decommissioned.

Tuesday, Sinz said the Baker platform is expected to continue to produce natural gas, and that the Dillon platform will be used as a support facility.

"They are not being abandoned," she said.

Sinz said no one at Unocal is working on alternative energy uses for the platforms at this time.

She did say former Gov. Wally Hickel had been interested in exploring the possibilities of tapping the energy of Cook Inlet tides a few years ago.

Indeed, Hickel had met with Tidal Electric Chairman Peter Ullman during the late 1990s. Reached Wednesday, Hickel said the idea that the platforms might have uses beyond oil and gas was a new one to him, but he called it an interesting idea.

"It would be creative, but risky," he said. "I don't know if wind generation would work in Cook Inlet as it might out in the Aleutians. Maybe they (the platforms) would be a tourist attraction."

Elsewhere in U.S. waters, platforms have been put to other uses, although not as bases for energy production. In the Gulf of Mexico, where there are nearly 3,700 oil and gas platforms in operation, reserves are dwindling. Some 160 decommissioned structures have had their tops removed, legs cut, and been turned into artificial reefs that attract an abundance of sea life.

In 2000, state Sen. Dede Alpert, succeeded in pushing a bill all the way through the California Legislature that could have saved oil companies millions by allowing decommissioned platforms to be turned into reefs. However, Gov. Gray Davis vetoed the bill.

Goodman said Cook Inlet might not be a good candidate for turning rigs into reefs. They might just end up being more a hazard to navigation than an ecological enhancement.

Bases for wind farms that would tap Cook Inlet breezes are another possible use for ex-production platforms. Though not on former platforms, commercial wind energy projects already exist in Kotzebue and St. Paul Island, and others are planned.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, based in Washington, D.C., a site must have a minimum annual average wind speed of about 11-13 mph to be considered.

According to state climatologic records, the average annual wind speed in Anchorage is only 7 mph. National statistics accumulated by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, meanwhile, show an average annual wind speed of 9.6 mph at 164 feet above ground in Kenai.

Lower Cook Inlet is considered a corridor for strong winds, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The lab has used data from Bruin Bay and from two Cook Inlet drill rigs, as well as comments from mariners to reach that conclusion, according to lab employee Mari Shirazi, who provided the data from Kenai but could not name the platforms.

Sinz said Unocal supplies weather data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration daily from its Bruce and Dillon platforms, but NOAA spokesperson Bob Hopkins said the agency does not keep annual average statistics from the platforms.

Other ideas include erecting solar panels on the platforms, turning them into high-security prisons, tourist attractions, resorts and fish camps. Oil companies, given a way to unload useless platforms, might well jump at the chance to avoid dismantling expenses, Goodman said, and reap the benefit of a public perception that they were doing something good for the environment.

"That has real value," he said.

Whatever entity took over the platforms would have to calculate and be prepared to assume the cost of their eventual removal, and that may prove the biggest impediment of all to conversion, Goodman said.

"Talking about renewables is easy. Implementing them is difficult," he said. "There are enormous hurdles to be overcome."

Beyond the high start-up and dismantling costs, those hurdles could include community opposition, overcoming the tremendous pressures of ice flows, dealing with the possible threats to wildlife -- to whales and fish from turbine systems, to birds from wind generators. Still, at the very least, it's all worth studying, Goodman said.

"There's no real experience here," he said. "You'd spend money. Mistakes would be made. But is it the right thing to do? Yes, no question. I'd accuse Unocal of tripping over dollars in an attempt to save pennies if they declined to look at this."

Van Dyke agreed that someone would have to show they were financially able to assume the dismantling costs, say, through assets or bonds.

But transferring ownership for use as something other than an exploration or production platform also would require a change in state laws that oblige platform removal by the oil companies, Van Dyke said.

"It's a doable proposition," he said. "But the oil companies would have to strike another deal with the state. The lease doesn't give them the right to use the platforms for other things."

Shavelson thinks this is the time to start thinking about the disposition of the platforms. It has real potential for an outcome that is good for everyone.

"This is an opportunity for the corporations that have made handsome profits off Cook Inlet public resources to show their commitment to our communities and our jobs," he said.

"This is probably one of the most promising areas where we could find common ground with the energy industry."

Calls to Forest Oil and Marathon, two other oil firms that operate Cook Inlet platforms, for comment on this story were not returned by the Clarion's deadline.

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