Alaska Briefs

Sat, 02/19/2005 - 8:00pm
The conveyor system at the Red Dog mine’s port on the Chukchi Sea has seen upgrades to prevent the finely ground ore from escaping into the environment. The company has agreed to pay $33,000 in fines to the Environmental Protection Agency for ore that blew into the sea in 2002.
Nabors, BP cleared in December oil well ’burp’

FAIRBANKS - Nabors Alaska Drilling and BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. properly handled and reported a ’burp’ in a Prudhoe Bay oil well that allowed mud and gas to escape, according to state regulators.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission reached the conclusion but another agency continues to study whether anything escaped onto the ground.

In addition, the commission continues to investigate a separate allegation that Nabors supervisors faked pressure tests on some rigs.

The commission, in a letter to oil company critic Chuck Hamel last week, said drilling mud and gas that escaped during the December event should not be called a blowout.

Nabors and BP did not violate state laws that the commission enforces, the letter said. It reached the same conclusions concerning a similar event that occurred in July 2003 at a different well.

Hamel had publicized the incidents in a letter to Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in January. He also posted blurry photographs of the December incident on a Web site.

Denny Smith and Daren Beaudo, spokesmen for Nabors and BP respectively, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner’s Washington, D.C., bureau that the commission reached the same conclusions as the company.

"That’s kind of what we thought from the beginning," Beaudo said.

The commission letter stated that the incident was an example of "well bore breathing." The conditions for such breathing are created when pressure builds up in rock pores during drilling. Drilling mud, a heavy clay pumped into the well, normally holds the pressure.

"When the mud pump is shut off, as when making a drill pipe connection, the pressure-charged naturally fractured strata can release some drilling mud and formation fluids back into the well bore, mimicking the effects of a well kick," the commission stated.

In the December incident, some gas and mud were ejected, it said.

Nabors and BP employees knew what was happening at the time and disagreed about how to handle it, the commission said. BP’s approach was acceptable, it said.

Nonessential personnel were cleared from the rig while the potentially flammable gas escaped, the commission said.

"This is routine practice and is not necessarily indicative of an event as potentially serious as you alleged in your letter," the commission told Hamel.

Commissioners said the Nabors rig drilling crew at no time lost control of the well.

The July 2003 event occurred when the same rig at a different location hit gas hydrates, the commission said. Drilling mud became permeated with chips of the ice-like substance made of methane and water. As chips rose to the surface, the decreasing pressure let the methane turn to a gaseous form with a greater volume. The rapidly expanding volume pushed drilling mud and gas out the top of the well.

"The commission finds that the ejected liquids were substantially contained by the drilling rig structure and mud system during this event," the letter stated.

Despite the commission’s exoneration of the companies on those scores, other investigations continue.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is still checking to see if any liquid touched the ground outside the drilling rig, and if so, how much. Neither company reported a spill in December.

- The Associated Press

Lawmakers plan retirement fix

FAIRBANKS - State lawmakers are looking to fill a $5.6 billion gap in the state’s public employee and teacher retirement systems.

Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks, and three colleagues in the Legislature are leading an effort to craft legislation that could be introduced by next week.

Kelly said the bill likely would focus on issues such as changing the membership of the boards that oversee the systems, creating new "tiers" that set different benefit and contribution rates for new employees and making other corrections to reduce costs.

The retirement programs used by state and local governments have resulted in a combined debt of some $5.6 billion for the employers. The debt is attributed largely to a bad run on the stock market, combined with skyrocketing health care costs.

Kelly is working on the legislation with Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer. Some of the ideas the group has developed so far include basic changes such as adding local government representatives or people who are not beneficiaries of the retirement systems to the boards that oversee the programs.

There’s also been discussion about combining the teachers’ board and the public employees’ board into one "super board," he said. Other proposals involve creating a separate tier for new employees that would establish different benefit and contribution rates than what are established now.

The TRS and PERS boards rejected that idea last November, with opponents arguing changes brought on by a new tier are not necessary and that tampering with benefits threatens to make it less attractive to work in Alaska.

However, the Legislature, not the boards, has ultimate authority to decide on new tiers. Kelly said the working group also is weighing the idea of spreading the increased costs equally between employers and employees.

- The Associated Press

Women pilots recognized

The Alaska Chapter of the 99s International Women Pilots organization plans to host a reception and book-signing event honoring Alaska’s pioneer women aviators.

Marvel Crosson, the first woman in Alaska to receive her pilot’s license, is among the earlier pilots. Crosson came to Alaska in 1927 with her brother, Joe. She died in a plane crash in 1929 while running in the National Women’s Air Derby.

The oldest living pilot in the book, Pearl Laska Chamberlain was the first woman to fly her own airplane from the Lower 48 to Alaska, traveling from Virginia to Nome in 1946. Chamberlain, now 95, learned to fly an ultralight when she was 83 years old.

Several of the pilots featured in the book plan to attend the reception.

The 99s is an international nonprofit organization founded by Amelia Earhart and 98 other woman pilots in 1929.

Pat Prentiss, vice president of the 99s’ international board and the liaison for the organization’s chapters, is also scheduled to attend.

The event, scheduled for Feb. 26, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., will be held at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum. Call Angie Slingluff at (907) 271-3422 for information.

- By the Journal of Commerce