Commission sticks with 10 days for comment on fracking

Nobody appears happy with the Alaska Oil and Gas Commission’s proposal for notifying the public about plans to hydraulic fracture oil and gas wells in the state.

The commission has suggested providing 10-day periods for public comment on well fracking applications immediately following the publishing of redacted versions of the applications to the commission’s website.

The proposed regulatory change followed a mid-December public hearing on the issue requested by Bob Shavelson, a director of the Homer-based local environmental watchdog group Cook Inletkeeper.

Oil company representatives argued the commission’s idea would add another regulatory burden that could delay their operations without providing any technical benefits to the state. It was also noted several times that the commission already approves well fractures on a case-by-case basis.

At a follow-up hearing March 23, BlueCrest Energy President John Martineck said the company supports the current fracking regulations and is comfortable disclosing the contents of its fracking fluid.

BlueCrest, a small Houston-based independent, is currently drilling a pair of horizontal wells to reach an offshore oil reservoir underneath Cook Inlet from an onshore pad on the southern Kenai Peninsula. The company plans to fracture each of its production wells once, as opposed to the repeated well fracking common in Lower 48 shale operations.

Full development of the project would entail drilling several more wells.

The easily visible location of BlueCrest’s work, which is adjacent to the Sterling Highway near Anchor Point, has raised public concerns about oil and gas activities — with potential fracking impacts a top worry — in an around populated areas.

The State of Alaska has some of the most stringent fracking regulations in the country, Martineck said.

“Folks don’t realize the way the commission polices these activities,” he testified to the commission. “This new proposal adds nothing to the process.”

The three-member commission, or AOGCC, oversees the highly technical aspects of Alaska’s oil and gas business down to the specifics of each well drilled in the state. Much of AOGCC’s layered mission is to ensure maximum recovery of the state’s hydrocarbon resources while protecting freshwater resources and adjudicating disputes between resource holders.

Fracking is a means of increasing oil and gas recovery from “tight” rocks by pumping water, other fluids and into the wellbore at high pressures, which forces its way into and cracks the surrounding reservoir rock. Those small cracks, or fractures, subsequently act as pathways for the oil or gas to escape into the well.

It is a technique the oil and gas industry has employed for many years in Alaska; however, it has become much more widespread as well as controversial over the past decade, particularly in the Lower 48.

At the December hearing, held at Shavelson’s request, he asked for a 30-day comment period and the opportunity for a public hearing on individual fracking applications, which would be granted at the commission’s request.

During the recent hearing Shavelson again pushed for the 30-day comment public period, noting the commission often gives industry 30 days to comment on regulatory issues and the public should get the same.

Cook Inletkeeper is not asking for a hearing on each fracking application, he said. Rather, the group just wants ample time to review what are very detailed, technical documents.

Additionally, the exact wording of the AOGCC’s proposal states the commission “will accept” comments for 10 days, and thus does not require it to consider the public’s input, according to Shavelson.

“The proposed rule is so vague it’s rendered almost meaningless,” he commented.

At the same time, he commended BlueCrest for the company’s willingness to hold voluntary public meetings to explain its plans to lower Kenai Peninsula residents as well as its responsiveness to questions and concerns from Cook Inletkeeper.

Shavelson’s comments were mostly reiterated by public testifiers at the March 23 hearing.

Former state senator and AOGCC commissioner appointee Hollis French said the commission looks at its proposal as “a step forward” and it will be watching the how the 10-day comment period works over the next year. Part of that will include monitoring the public versions of operator applications to make sure companies don’t abuse the confidentiality provision, French said.

“We’re not patting the industry on the back. We’re going into the teeth of their opposition,” he said.

Commissioner Dan Seamount noted that one of the commission’s primary responsibilities is protecting freshwater, but also said he has not seen substantive evidence that properly conducted fracking impacts freshwater aquifers, which are typically thousands of feet above the oil and gas zones where the activity is focused.

However, some comments revealed a general disdain for fracking or the oil industry as a whole, which Alaska Oil and Gas Association attorney Joshua Kindred said exemplifies the emotions and lack of nuance the commission will get in public comments on specific fracking applications.

“What you’re going to get is ‘fracking is bad,’” Kindred told the commissioners.

He added that the AOGCC spent roughly two years drafting its current regulations but got little public interest during the process.

The discussion about public involvement in approving fracking operations has become a “proxy debate” for individuals who oppose the activity in general, according to French. To that end, he said the commission will also be watching closely to see if the public comments it receives on future applications are pertinent to the project at hand.

French noted further that current regulations require operators to notify all residents within a half-mile of a well that will be fractured of the activity before it occurs.

“They get notice before we get notice,” French said.

Lois Epstein, an engineer and the Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society also pushed for 30 days of notice, contending that while the public at-large may not understand the technical aspects of a fracking application, 30 days would give individuals more time to research specifics.

She also said a company’s operating history in Alaska should be relevant to the discussion, too.

Shavelson said further that because Alaska’s resources are publicly held, the resource owners “have a right to now” what is happening with them.

John Hendrix, oil and gas advisor to Gov. Bill Walker, testified against any regulation changes in the previous hearing.

The commission regularly rules on other technical matters that draw less public interest without a formal public review and making fracking operations the exception could lead to other requests to unnecessarily slow a process that currently works well, he said.

The broader issue is Alaskans not being adequately educated about the oil and gas industry and the work that already goes on to ensure the industry remains viable in the state while protecting the environment, according to Hendrix.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

03/29/2017 - 1:05pm