Inlet's oil platforms could be used for other functions

Posted: Sunday, November 03, 2002

KENAI (AP) -- 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.

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, said Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inlet Keeper, a Homer-based environmental research group.

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.

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.''

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