Resource potential expands at Alaska graphite prospect

The potential of a unique Western Alaska mineral deposit keeps growing as its developers inch closer to making it a mine. Stan Foo, chief operating officer of Graphite One Inc., told a gathering of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance on May 9 in Anchorage that infill drilling done last year at the company’s Graphite Creek prospect on the Seward Peninsula helped significantly increase the resource estimates for the deposit. “We’re very excited about the improvements we made. We increased the resource by about 14 percent last year,” Foo said. Located on the northern face of the Kigluaik Mountains about 40 miles north of Nome, the Graphite Creek deposit holds measured and indicated resources estimated at nearly 11 million metric tons of ore at an average grade of about 8 percent graphite. The inferred resource is now at approximately 92 million metric tons of ore at 8 percent graphite, a 29 percent increase from figures released in a June 2017 preliminary economic assessment of the project. Overall, Graphite One now believes the deposit could hold more than 7.3 million metric tons of graphite, according to company filings. Foo said some areas of the deposit are more than 20 percent graphite and chunks of the mineral are scattered on the ground in the exploration area. “Some of this graphite is so continuous it looks like an oversized pencil lead when you see the core box (drilling samples),” he said. “It’s a very prominent mineral in the area.” Formerly Graphite One Resources Inc., the company recently dropped “Resources” so its name would better reflect plans to become an integrated graphite producer and manufacturer, instead of being solely a mine operator, according to Foo. Small-scale mining took place in the early 1900s but the area has mostly gone undeveloped since. Graphite One leaders envision a mine that would be much larger than what was done in the area previously, but would still be fairly small by today’s standards, Foo said. Current plans are for mining about 1 million tonnes of ore per year, which would be distilled at an on-site processing plant into about 60,000 tonnes of 95 percent graphite concentrate. The rough concentrate would then be shipped to a purification plant the company hopes to develop somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, where it would be refined into several types of more than 99 percent pure graphite concentrate. Graphite One partnered with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority in 2017 to analyze the prospect of siting the purification plant in Alaska; however, access to lower-cost power in the Pacific Northwest drove the decision to site the plant further south, according to Foo. Overall development cost for the mine and processing plant was pegged at $233 million in a 2017 preliminary economic analysis of the project. The purification-manufacturing plant would cost another $130 million. Full development would also require about 270 employees at the mine, according to the PEA. The mine itself would be a relatively small open-pit operation, Foo said, and the ore would be processed using basic flotation methods. Other Graphite One officials have characterized the prospective mine as an “oversized gravel pit,” as there is no need for the chemical leaching processes commonly found at metal mines. The Graphite Creek deposit contains four types of graphite — a rarity — which led Graphite One to coin the term “STAX” graphite for its spherical, thin flake, aggregate flake, and expanded flake graphite structures, Foo said. The various types of graphite each have characteristics that make them suitable for different applications, but demand for the mineral these days mostly comes from lithium ion battery makers for use in electric vehicles and other high-stress battery applications. “These are all naturally occurring qualities of this deposit, which makes it very unique and the (U.S. Geological Survey) will be studying our deposit this year to determine exactly why this occurrence has these qualities and can we find others in the United States,” he said. He also noted that lithium ion batteries have 10 to 30 times more graphite than lithium. “We like to think they should be called graphite ion batteries. You talk to the cobalt guys; they’d like them to be called cobalt ion,” Foo quipped. In addition to being a primary component for modern energy storage, graphite has long been a popular dry mechanical lubricant. Its resistance to heat also makes it useful in high-temperature applications and its strength and flexibility make it the go-to material for fishing rods and many other uses — in addition to pencils. If developed, Graphite Creek would be the sole domestic source of graphite. China currently controls most of the world’s supply and graphite is on the U.S. Geological Survey’s critical minerals list as a strategically important material for which the country relies on imports. This year, the company will continue its resource evaluation and environmental baseline data collection work while also conducting a pre-feasibility study to evaluate the viability of the project in more detail, Foo said. He added that environmental permitting could be “very straightforward” and suggested the project could warrant a simpler environmental assessment — avoiding the rigorous environmental impact statement process — depending on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ determination on the likely impacts to wetlands. If it all goes as planned, Foo said Graphite One could be turning ground in about four years. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Movers and Shakers for May 19

The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council elected officers at its annual board meeting in Valdez from May 2-3. Officers will serve from May 2019 to May 2020. The elected executive committee is comprised of: President Robert Archibald, representing the City of Homer; Vice President Amanda Bauer, representing the City of Valdez; Treasurer Wayne Donaldson, representing the City of Kodiak; and Secretary Bob Shavelson, representing the Oil Spill Region Environmental Coalition. Three Members-at-Large are: Peter Andersen, representing Chugach Alaska Corp.; Thane Miller, representing Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp.; and Rebecca Skinner, representing the Kodiak Island Borough. Rasmuson Foundation announced three new hires for external affairs program officer and two program officers on the Foundation’s grantmaking team. They bring more than six decades of work experience with expertise in the arts, child welfare and community collaboration. Vaughnetta J. Barton is the new external affairs program officer. Barton joined Rasmuson Foundation in March 2019 with more than 30 years of experience in nonprofits with a focus on community partnerships and strengthening organizations. She has held senior leadership positions in early learning, mentoring and welfare-to-work. Her most recent position launched the University of Washington School of Social Work’s prevention-based project, Communities in Action. At Philanthropy Northwest, a close partner, she developed its fundraising strategy. She is an alum of the Puget Sound-area’s Leadership Tomorrow. Tanya Dumas was hired as a program officer. Dumas also joined in March with more than 15 years of experience in programs designed to help children, families and communities thrive. Most recently, she served as director of operations for the Indian Child Welfare team at Casey Family Programs, a national operating foundation. Before that, Dumas worked as a corporate litigator in San Francisco and devoted pro-bono time to cases addressing education, voting rights and more. She also is an alum of Leadership Tomorrow and earlier served as a VISTA volunteer, coordinating an early childhood literacy program in two rural Oregon schools. Enzina Marrari was also hired as a program officer. Marrari joined the foundation in February after 15 years of working for government and nonprofit organizations in Alaska. Marrari, a practicing artist, previously served as curator of public art for the Municipality of Anchorage. She also has worked as grants manager for Access Alaska, director of education for Planned Parenthood of Alaska and adjunct professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She currently serves on the Municipal Arts Advisory Commission and as board chair for Momentum Dance Collective. In 2018, Marrari was recognized as one of Alaska’s Top Forty Under 40 emerging leaders by the Alaska Journal of Commerce. AMC Engineers announced that Ken Ratcliffe was named president effective May 1. Ratcliffe is a principal electrical engineer and has been with AMC for 27 years, serving as a vice president for the past seven years. Ratcliffe has been involved with numerous highly successful projects including the State of Alaska Library, Archives and Museum, University of Alaska Anchorage Engineering and Industry Building, UAA Health Science Building, Dimond High School, and Dr. Katherine and Dr. Kevin Gottlieb Building; all received illumination awards. As past president, Pat Cusick will remain at AMC full time. Tom and Sheila Barrett were awarded United Way of Anchorage’s prestigious Tocqueville Society Community Service Award at a reception held at the home of Carolyn and David Johnston on April 24. Celebrating the Barretts’ commitment to community were nearly 50 of Anchorage’s philanthropic leaders and generous Tocqueville Society members who each give $10,000 or more annually to create long-lasting changes by tackling our community’s most serious issues. Last year, United Way of Anchorage’s Tocqueville Society, which represents approximately 1.6 percent of the donor base, contributed more than 30 percent of total campaign revenues. The Alaska Army National Guard formally welcomed its new commander in a change of command ceremony at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on May 8. Brig. Gen. Joseph Streff relinquished command of the organization to Brig. Gen. (Alaska) Charles Knowles during the ceremony presided over by Brig. Gen. (Alaska) Torrence Saxe, adjutant general for Alaska and commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Knowles was born in Alaska, and started his career as an enlisted soldier with the Alaska Army National Guard in 1987 during his junior year of high school. He went on to graduate from Wasilla High School the following year. After completing the State Officer Candidate Program in 1991, he received his commission as an infantry officer in 1995. Knowles has bachelor’s and occupational education in business administration degree from Wayland Baptist University and a master’s degree in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in March 2019, while he was the land component commander of the Alaska Army National Guard. Pat Hoxie has joined Sitnasuak Native Corp. as the new vice president of contract administration and compliance. Hoxie brings more than 30 years of experience in federal contracting and more than 20 years of experience with Alaska Native corporations. His education background is in accounting and finance. He had previously served as the vice president of finance for an international government contractor, and as the director of contracts and compliance for Doyon Ltd.

FISH FACTOR: Optimism abounds after strong showing of snow crab recruits

Bering Sea crabbers saw upticks in crab recruits during a good fishery for the 2018-19 season, along with strong prices. The crab season opens in mid-October for red king crab, Tanners and snow crab, or opilio, and while fishing goes fast for red kings in order to fill orders for year-end markets in Japan, the fleet typically drops pots for the other species in January. Crabbers said they saw strong showings of younger crab poised to enter the three fisheries. Only male crabs of a certain size are allowed to be retained for sale. “For Bristol Bay red king crab the reports were very positive,” said veteran crabber Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange that represents the majority of Bering Sea crabbers. “I got a lot of reports from people saying they saw a lot of recruitment around, a lot of females and small crab, but some boats didn’t see any. So, it depended on where you were. Overall, the catch seemed to go pretty fast and the fishing was good, it wasn’t scratchy at all for most of the boats.” The price also was good. The red king crab fetched $10.33 per pound, up from $9.20 last season, for a catch of 4.3 million pounds. Crabbers also saw good numbers of bairdi Tanners which had a harvest limit of 2.4 million pounds. Jacobsen said price negotiations are still ongoing for both Tanners and their smaller cousin, snow crab. “We should be close to record prices for opilio (snow crab),” Jacobsen said. The record snow crab price set in 2012 was $4.98 per pound; last season’s price was $4.04 per pound. Competing imports from Russia are up substantially, Jacobsen said, and they are trying to get rid of product held over from last season. “That’s brought the price down and I expect prices will start to climb again as people get a feel for availability of the resource and what the crab looks like,” he added. Snow crab is a bright spot for the Bering Sea fleet. A catch of 27.5 million pounds this season was a 47 percent increase after the 2018 summer survey showed a 60 percent boost in market-sized males and nearly the same for females. Bob Foy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration director of science and research based at the Auke Bay lab in Juneau, called it “one of the largest snow crab recruitment events ever seen.” Jacobsen said that was consistent with what the crabbers saw on the fishing grounds. That has speculation running wild that the snow crab catch could double again for next season, but he added it’s best to wait and see. “I’ve been in the business too long to get excited about that kind of news because I’ve heard it before. It all depends on the summer survey and we’ve been trying to make some improvements in the stock assessment model. But it looks pretty positive,” he said. “What we’re looking for isn’t dramatic swings. We’d rather have a steady, fishable population but with nature that’s not always possible. Crab are very cyclic in their population numbers.” There’s been some tension between crabbers and managers in recent years over big differences in what crabbers are seeing on the fishing grounds and the numbers managers pull up in the summer trawl survey. “Apparently, the crab go on vacation somewhere else in the summertime because they haven’t been showing up in the survey recently,” Jacobsen added with a laugh. Last season the three Bering Sea crab fisheries were valued at $190 million for a fleet of about 85 boats. Wanted: Young fishermen The call is out for young Alaska fishermen who want training in career opportunities in fishery management, advocacy, research, marketing, conservation, business and much more. The Young Fishing Fellows Program, now in its third year, is an initiative of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. The program this year will include five mentor groups across the state. “The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka, the North Pacific Fisheries Association out of Homer, and the Alaska Fishermen’s Network is hosting a fellow of our own this year to help us out with the Young Fishermen’s Almanac,” said Jamie O’Connor, director of the network, an AMCC program. “Also, Koniag, the Native (corporation) out of Kodiak, is doing a policy fellowship focused on fisheries access. And the N&N Cannery History Project is hosting a fellow and will focus on the history of canneries in Alaska and the folks who work in them.” O’Connor, who got the job at AMCC after participating in the first Fellows cohort, said the fellowships are open to fishermen 35 and under who are paid from $16 to $26 per hour for their work, depending on their experience. “It’s part time and usually ends up being about 10 hours a week for a few months in the winter. There’s a lot of flexibility built in so people can work around their winter schedule or jobs, and of course, the fishing seasons,” she said. Past Fellows have gone to work as legislative aides in Washington, D.C., and as part of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council advisory panel. One is a subsistence fishing advocate; another is doing research at the Kachemak Bay National Estuarian Research Preserve on adaptability for fishing businesses in a changing climate. “One of our mentors likes to say ‘if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu,’ and these fellowships teach people like myself and the others how to effectively be at the table, whether it be regulatory or direct marketing or whatever young fishermen might need to diversify their business,” O’Connor said. The fellowships begin this fall and the deadline to apply is May 26. “We are hoping to have enough applications to get everybody matched up before I go fishing,” O’Connor said. Learn more at The Young Fishing Fellows Program is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Edgerton Foundation. Salmon starts + fishing updates Alaska’s 2019 salmon season officially opens on May 16 with a 12-hour opener for sockeyes and king salmon at Copper River. Salmon openers in other Alaska regions will quickly follow. Trollers in Southeast began targeting spring king salmon starting May 1. Some Southeast areas opened to beam trawlers for side stripe and pink shrimp on May 1 and a pot shrimp fishery opens on May 15 with a catch of 39,500 pounds. Two areas remain open to golden king crab, and Panhandle divers continue going down for geoduck clams. At Prince William Sound a third opener for spot shrimp opens on May 14 for a fleet of nearly 70 boats who are competing for a catch of 68,100 pounds. A sablefish season is underway in the Sound with a 134,000-pound target. The recent Tanner crab fishery in Prince William Sound produced nearly 125,000 pounds for 14 fishermen who received $3.30 per pound. A one-day-per-week bait herring fishery is open at Upper Cook through May 31, and a small smelt (hooligan) fishery opened on May 1. Clammers also are busy at Alaska’s only razor clam fishery at beaches on the west side of Cook Inlet with a 400,000 pound limit. Kodiak’s roe herring fishery continues with a harvest set at just more than 1,400 tons. Togiak’s herring fishery closed May 3 with a record catch for seiners topping 23,060 tons. A herring bait fishery is underway near Unalakleet area and Norton Sound Seafood Products plans to buy about 40 tons. There is more than 6,000 tons for the herring quota this year, but no buyer interest for a roe fishery, which pays out much less than herring purchased for bait. Halibut landings have crept up to about 4 million pounds and 6 million for sablefish. Fisheries for cod, pollock, flounders, other whitefish and more are ongoing throughout the Gulf and Bering Sea. ^ Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

Legislature, RCA press utilities to coordinate as talks stall

The legislative session is winding down but work continues on efforts to compel the six Railbelt electric utilities to act more as one. The House Energy Committee introduced legislation May 3 to give the Regulatory Commission of Alaska the authority to enforce the standards of an electric reliability organization and jurisdiction over some utilities’ large capital decisions. House Bill 151 comes just as the RCA is preparing to send lawmakers a progress report on the utilities’ current voluntary efforts to pool generation capacity for fuel efficiency and cost savings to ratepayers, which the five-member commission says have stalled. The RCA issued a series of recommendations in a June 2015 letter to the Legislature that outlined ways the electric utilities operating from Fairbanks to Homer could work together, such as combining their generation and transmission assets, as a means to ultimately achieve a more efficient and reliable system. The Legislature requested insight into Railbelt utility operations the year prior. In the letter, the commission characterized the Railbelt electric system at the time as “fragmented” and “balkanized.” It also insisted that if the utilities would not voluntarily work together for the betterment of their customers, the commission would do what it could to mandate better cooperation, either through its own regulations or by seeking statutory help from the Legislature. Some critical observers of the Railbelt electric system contend the six utilities — spread over a large area but with collective demand less than many single Lower 48 utilities — have overbuilt generation capacity in recent years while ignoring transmission investments that could make it more cost effective to move lower cost power from one end of the system to the other. The 2015 letter notes the utilities had spent roughly $1.5 billion on new generation facilities over the previous five years. Utility leaders spent much of the interim period investigating the viability of establishing a transmission company, or transco, that would make large capital decisions based on the system-wide need for an investment. Concurrently, they also looked at establishing a unified, or independent system operator structure, which at a basic level would act as a system-wide power dispatch organization. When properly combined, proponents say the transco and system operator groups would reform the Railbelt grid to resemble more integrated Lower 48 electric utility operations. Currently, the Railbelt utilities continuously buy and sell power to each other; however, they also each apply their own transmission, or wheeling, tariffs, when power is sent across the portion of the main transmission lines they own. This can lead to situations where tariff “pancaking” disincentives power transactions that could otherwise maximize the efficiency of the system as a whole. Renewable energy advocates, in particular, stress that an open-access transmission system with a flat wheeling tariff would allow independent power producers to compete on a level playing field with current power plants for power sales and would incentivize more investment renewable projects in the region. The Alaska Energy Authority released a study in early 2014 estimating that a $900 million overhaul to the transmission system would provide additional power moving capacity that could save Railbelt ratepayers up to $240 million per year by maximizing transmission efficiency and economies of scale in the system. Utility leaders have largely questioned the conclusions of that study, contending the need for investment and corresponding benefit figures are overblown. AEA commissioned a revised Railbelt transmission study in 2017 that reached mostly similar conclusions. In January 2017, Matanuska Electric Association, Anchorage Municipal Light and Power and Chugach Electric Association announced a power pooling and joint dispatch agreement that had accompanying estimated savings in fuel costs — primarily through burning less natural gas — totaling up to $16 million per year collectively. Since early 2013, each of the utilities in the pooling partnership has built new, higher efficiency natural gas-fired power plants. While the plants are individually more efficient than the generation they replaced, jointly orchestrating how they are used can take that efficiency further, according to utility officials. Utility leaders said at the time that the short-term agreement was a step towards a firm 20-year pooling partnership. But during a May 8 meeting, Commissioner Bob Pickett, who has led the RCA’s review of the Railbelt utility operations, said that progress towards the long-term arrangement has stopped. He said it is time for the commission and the Legislature to move toward mandating the utilities work closer together as their voluntary efforts have not been wholly successful. “This does not mean, however, that no value has resulted from the utilities’ efforts over the past four years,” Pickett said. “There has been increased interaction between the dispatch centers and a better understanding between the electric utilities of each other’s generation units and heat rates, operation and maintenance costs. This has provided a better foundation for discussions about pricing and development of transactions.” He continued to note that it’s unlikely the voluntary efforts will resume until 2021, when Chugach’s proposed $1 billion purchase of MLP is likely to be formally completed. Chugach spokeswoman Julie Hasquet wrote via email that efforts to achieve a firm, or tight power pool are continuing. The three Anchorage-area utilities in October notified the RCA that they would pause the three-party negotiations to focus on the utility merger, Hasquet said, adding that Chugach’s acquisition of MLP will realize most of the savings from a tight power pool. “Chugach has committed to MEA that we will continue to negotiate the tight pool following the RCA process on acquisition. The processes developed to operate as a tight power pool can easily be expanded throughout the Railbelt,” she said, “and we welcome the other utilities to join in.” In late February, four of the six Railbelt utilities — minus Chugach and MEA — applied with Wisconsin-based ATC Development Company LLC to the RCA to form Alaska Railbelt Transmission LLC, a transmission-only utility based on the transco model. MEA leaders have long said they believe a complex transco is unnecessary to realize efficiencies in the system and could force utilities into making investments that are ultimately detrimental to their operations, which would be counter to their obligations to their own ratepayers. MEA officials contended in comments on the transco application that it does not demonstrate how the transmission utility’s proposed activities would serve the public interest. MEA also questioned the ability of the startup utility to provide the touted benefits. Lee Thibert, CEO of Chugach, which did not join Alaska Railbelt Transmission, said in comments to the RCA that the utility has concerns about how being a member the for-profit transmission utility would impact the cooperative’s tax-exempt status and how its formation could impact Chugach’s potential purchase of MLP, among other issues. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Fire from ice: Research advances into unlocking methane hydrate

A research well drilled last winter into the Prudhoe Bay oil field could be a key to unlocking vast stores of yet untapped energy. Last December, a consortium of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of Energy and Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. partnered with BP to drill a shallow test well from an unused pad in the western portion of the large Prudhoe field into the rock layers above the oil and gas pools . The well successfully targeted two formations of natural gas hydrate, according to an April USGS release. It was also the start of a multi-year research endeavor with the ultimate goal of better understanding the viability of commercial gas hydrate production. USGS Senior Scientist and University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate Tim Collett said the Prudhoe well represents what is likely the first gas hydrate research that goes beyond the realm of experimentation and into an actual production test. “The (research) world pretty much knows this project well and points to it as a real pivotal event in gas hydrate, as you can imagine,” Collett said in an interview. While an emerging and understudied potential energy source, the fundamental elements of gas hydrate are simple and well understood. Gas hydrate is ostensibly made of natural gas trapped in ice crystals. On the North Slope it is known to occur above the Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk River oil and gas fields in conventional porous sand formations, according to Collett. It forms under a range of temperature and pressure conditions — just below the freezing point in permafrost as shallow as 1,000 feet down to temperatures as high as 50 degrees at depths of about 3,000 feet. The ideal pressure for gas hydrate is in the 1,500 pounds per square inch range, he said. “It’s basically just a cage of water molecules organized around a gas molecule under a certain range of PT (pressure-temperature) and under those conditions the cage becomes rigid, so it’s a solid,” Collett described. Gas hydrate reservoirs are appealing because they generally have more capacity to store than conventional gas reservoirs and they consistently form at relatively shallow depths, he added. The Prudhoe well struck reservoirs at about 2,300 feet and 2,770 feet below the surface. Gas hydrate was found to be filling 65 percent to more than 80 percent of the spaces, or porosity, between the grains of sand and silt in the upper reservoir that comprise the rock formation, according to the USGS. The gas hydrate accumulations on the North Slope hold the same natural gas as is found in the conventional reservoirs. When the hydrocarbon-bearing formations of Prudhoe Bay were charged 60 million to 120 million years ago they were tilted into an uplifted position and some of the gas and oil migrated to the upper end of the structure, Collett explained. Much of the gas that moved upward ended up in the zone where pressure and temperature conditions would eventually become suitable for hydrate formation. “About 1.6 million years ago, when Arctic conditions were established and permafrost originally formed — this is the period of glaciation — those gas accumulations were converted to hydrates,” Collett described. Solid estimates The greater gas storage capacity in hydrate reservoirs comes from the fact that it is in a solid form. “If I had a block of gas hydrate on my desk that was 1 square-foot it would produce approximately 164 cubic feet of gas and about 0.9 cubic feet of water,” Collett said. A 2008 USGS assessment estimated there are roughly 85 trillion cubic feet, or tcf, of technically recoverable natural gas trapped in hydrate form beneath the surface of the Slope. For comparison, the North Slope’s massive conventional proven gas resources total about 35 tcf. Collett noted that about one-quarter of the world’s land mass is underlain by permafrost and has the potential to hold gas hydrate. It is also found in some of the first layers of sediment where the ocean reaches depths of about 1,500 feet or more. Those are the places where the pressure and temperature regimes are favorable for hydrate formation. Beyond that, Collett said, hydrate needs the same processes and conditions needed to form conventional hydrocarbon occurrences. Global hydrate estimates “are on order of tens of thousands trillion cubic feet” of gas, compared to about 7,000 tcf of proven gas resources worldwide, according to the Department of Energy. With hard-to-fathom potential, it’s natural to wonder why more work has not been done to commercialize gas hydrate. For starters, “The samples are very difficult to collect and take back to a lab and study,” said Ray Boswell, a geologist with the National Energy Technology Laboratory. Additionally, the deep sea hydrate tests are exceedingly expensive and difficult to conduct long-term, Boswell said; and previous tests at Prudhoe in 2012 and Canada’s Mackenzie Delta 15 to 20 years ago were done on ice pads, which limited their duration to weeks instead of months or years. Collett said gas hydrate was first identified in the 1940s in natural gas pipelines in Siberia; they would form and plug pipelines and that is still industry’s primary interest in hydrate formation. The first samples from gas hydrate reservoirs were not taken until the mid-1990s, according to Collett. Producing interest U.S. government agencies have been studying gas hydrate for about 35 years and that work has mostly been focused on identifying the conditions needed for it to form, according to the researchers. Boswell said the current test — fortuitously on an old, mostly unused gravel exploration pad — is focused on determining if gas hydrate can be produced long-term. Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. is involved to learn more about gas hydrate on the hope of eventually being able to produce natural gas from subsea hydrate occurrences near the country, according to Collett. He said Japan and China in particular are interested in advancing gas hydrate development through their national oil companies because they currently import large amounts of energy through coal and liquefied natural gas. Natural gas is produced from hydrate by depressurizing or warming the reservoir, which dissociates the gas and water. Depressurizing the reservoir can be as simple as drilling a well into it, but maintaining those conditions can be difficult. The researchers also noted that heating a hydrate reservoir requires heating all of the associated rock formation, which requires a lot of energy. Finally, the dissociation of the water and gas is an endothermic reaction, meaning it results in cooling that drives the hydrate back into equilibrium — yet another challenge. “The reservoirs are in a solid state and they like it that way,” Boswell said. As for the Slope study, BP Alaska spokeswoman Meg Baldino said the company allowed access to the pad, drilled the well using one of its contracted rigs owned by Parker Drilling and has supported hydrate research for decades. Boswell said the Prudhoe owners — BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil — also let government researchers review confidential data that helped in the site selection process. Collett surmised that private industry has been slow to investigate gas hydrate commercialization because it is such a new realm of study and recent breakthroughs in unconventional oil and gas production mean there are ample opportunities for less speculative investments. The next couple years will be spent turning the test well into a well to monitor another yet-to-be-drilled well for production tests. A third well will also drilled to monitor production tests, according to Collett. When those additional wells will be drilled is unclear at this point, as the agencies need to coordinate with the companies to work out when a drilling rig will be available again. He said BP used drilling the first well “as an opportunity before the winter drilling season to, quote, ‘warm up a rig,’” and then moved on to the rest of their work. With so many variables, the final cost of the research is also unclear at this point, but “as with anything in Alaska it’s not cheap,” Collett noted. The data from the test and monitoring wells will eventually be entered into models that can estimate hydrate production over many years, which he said researchers are confident in. However, they have never had access to enough data to fully form the models. “There’s many variables in this story and we try to simulate those in production models but without long-term tests to calibrate them you’re just at a limit to how much you can trust your modeling,” Collett said. Melting methane Melting permafrost has also been identified as a potential unwanted source of greenhouse gases; that is, if much of the world’s permafrost were to melt it could release the methane stored in gas hydrate form into the atmosphere. Such a process could exacerbate climate change because methane — pure natural gas — is a much more impactful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Collett and Boswell said recent research by USGS scientists has largely quelled that fear. A 2017 report by Carolyn Ruppel and John Kessler entitled “The interaction of climate change and methane hydrates” concludes that large releases of gas hydrate-derived methane are unlikely in the near future simply because most of the landside hydrate formations are beneath more than 1,000 feet of permafrost. “If we changed the temperature at the surface at Prudhoe Bay onshore 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) the base of the permafrost would not even see that change for 10,000 years,” Collett described. “That’s well documented; it’s good science.” He said shallow subsea Arctic hydrate formations, such as under the Beaufort Sea, could release methane sooner as ocean temperatures rise, but it’s unlikely that would occur over a “human timeframe” — hundreds or thousands of years. However, he acknowledged that does not change the fact that gas hydrate is another form of fossil fuels that if developed would add to global carbon emissions. “You go down that (hydrate) pathway, you start dealing with the role of natural gas relative to coal, relative to renewables. There’s a whole series of additional discussions,” he said. Boswell, Collett and the 2017 study all also note that methane releases from gas hydrate formations is a different issue than potential releases of carbon sourced from organic microbial processes trapped in shallow, discontinuous permafrost. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

GUEST COMMENTARY: Unite to rebuild infrastructure for Alaska and the nation

“Gridlock.” “Dysfunction.” “Stalemate.” In recent years, all of these words have been used in reference to Washington – especially after the 2018 elections created a divided Congress. It’s true that the partisan divide has oftentimes made it difficult to get things done, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This Congress, Republicans and Democrats from districts across the country have an opportunity to find common ground on an issue important to all of us: infrastructure. As former chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, I understand how important strong roads, ports, and bridges are to my fellow members and their constituents. Robust infrastructure is essential to a strong economy, and when the economy is booming, we all benefit. Improving America’s infrastructure could be the shot in the arm needed to take an already booming economy into overdrive. According to the Council of Economic Advisers, the economy could grow at an additional 3 percent if Congress comes together to pass major infrastructure legislation. However, any successful bipartisan infrastructure bill will need to address a range of issues currently facing our airports, harbors, and roads. First and foremost, Congress must come to an agreement on funding and find a way to fix the Federal Highway Trust Fund for the long-term. The Highway Trust Fund is in danger of becoming totally insolvent, and if you’ve seen the condition of some of Alaska’s highways – including the Alaska-Canada highway – you know how critical it is to stabilize this important funding source. Recent Congressional Budget Office estimates report that the Federal Highway Trust Fund will run out of money by 2022, making reform even more urgent. If we’re going to fix the Highway Trust Fund, we must be willing to consider all available options. Revenues from the federal gas tax have been steadily decreasing as our automobiles become more fuel efficient, and there are more electric vehicles in use, and dollars don’t buy as much as they once did. Just a few years ago, the federal gas tax collected $39 billion in revenue, but needed to support $52 billion in program commitments. The imbalance between revenue collection and highway spending is unsustainable, and only makes it more difficult for Congress to make progress on delivering the infrastructure that America needs. The most obvious solution to this problem is to simply raise the gas tax and adjust it for inflation. However, this simply wouldn’t generate enough revenue as cars are less reliant on gasoline than ever before. Another suggested solution is to initiate some type of user fee or vehicle-miles-traveled, or VMT, tax, which has seen some success in various states that have started pilot programs to test the viability of this solution. Methods to administer such a program on a nationwide scale are untested, and it would be important to ensure that constituents in rural states such as Alaska are not disproportionately affected by a user fee or VMT tax. Regardless of the method used, the fact of the matter is that both Republicans and Democrats want to fix the Federal Highway Trust Fund, and for the sake of the constituents who sent us here, we need to get it done. Rapidly-advancing technology is also improving lives across the world, and Congress should be prepared to not only harness this new technology to improve our infrastructure, but to develop a regulatory approach that keeps Americans safe, but doesn’t hamper innovation or further progress. The promise of companies like Amazon making unmanned deliveries via drone, or Tesla producing self-driving cars represents a new frontier in infrastructure and commerce, but also raises new safety concerns. In any new infrastructure effort, Congress must resist the urge to overregulate these technologies and instead opt for a light-touch approach that finds a regulatory balance while protecting public safety. Another focus that a potential bipartisan infrastructure package must also address is the lengthy permitting and project delivery process that has left so many projects in limbo. Time is money, and implementing oversight and looking for ways to eliminate unnecessary delays saves hard-earned taxpayer dollars. Environmental impact statements – though needed – can cause unnecessary delays, and create cost overruns that threaten entire infrastructure projects. President Trump and congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle must come together to reform the permitting process to better streamline project delivery while still protecting our environment. Project management is vital for the efficient completion of large infrastructure projects and if we are serious about putting together a robust infrastructure package, management standards must be considered in the legislation to ensure taxpayer dollars are not wasted. As Dean of the House, I’ve been fortunate to play a role in major, bipartisan wins for Alaska and our country. I firmly believe that this divided Congress has the opportunity to reverse the trend of crumbling roads and bridges, and finally get major infrastructure legislation passed. This year let’s finally break the gridlock, lose the “dysfunctional” label, and send an infrastructure bill to the President that our constituents can be proud of. Our communities and our economy depend on it. Rep. Don Young is the longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives and submitted this column to mark infrastructure week May 13-20.


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