With a Texas oil company weeks away from launching drilling that will lead to large-scale hydraulic fracturing in Cook Inlet, a conservation group wants Alaska well regulators to change their rules so the public can weigh in on future fracking operations before they are approved.
Industry supporters say that being forced into a public hearing each time they're proposing to use hydraulic fracturing to increase the flow of oil or gas would add costs and time without any benefit because, they say, they're already following rules strictly enforced by the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
They say companies have been fracturing formations deep underground for more than five decades in Alaska without harming the environment. And Alaska's rules were strengthened in 2014, during the controversial boom in fracking in the Lower 48, to what they call some of the nation's strongest.
But many Alaskans, including those living near the long horizontal well BlueCrest Energy plans to drill on the Kenai Peninsula, would welcome the opportunity to learn more about fracking operations before they occur, said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, a local environmental watchdog group.
People are concerned about potential threats to drinking water, wildlife and the earthquakes such activity might cause, he said.
"It's a transparency issue and Alaskans have a legal right to know," Shavelson said.
The AOGCC currently does not issue public notices or hold hearings when an operator applies for a permit to drill a well and use hydraulic fracturing. The information is made available to the general public after the agency approves the operation, leaving residents with little opportunity to influence the decision.
The AOGCC has set a hearing on Dec. 15 to take comments on Cook Inletkeeper's request for the change in fracking rules.
Long history of fracking in Alaska
Hydraulic fracturing — using mostly water plus sand and chemicals to crack and hold open rock to increase oil and gas production — began on the North Slope in 1963 and in the Inlet two years later. Almost 1,900 wells, about one fourth of the wells drilled in Alaska, have been fracked since then without problems, Foerster said. That includes 166 wells in the Inlet.
"There have been no documented instances of harm to fresh groundwater," Foerster said.
But concerns about fracking have grown in Alaska over the last couple of years, after some fracking in the Lower 48 has been blamed for earthquakes and for methane leaking into groundwater.
Though most fracking has occurred on the North Slope far from residential areas, the case of BlueCrest is different. It hopes to drill its well 6 miles north of Anchor Point, close enough to Homer and other communities on the Peninsula to raise concerns.
It will be the first large-scale, horizontal fracking program for the region using multistage fracks, with wells extending at least 4 miles. Multistage means instead of the single, large fractures made in the past, before sections could be isolated for fracking, the company plans to make many small, controlled fractures.
Benji Johnson, chief executive of BlueCrest, based in Fort Worth, Texas, said Alaska's standards are extremely high and will be closely followed.
"That's one reason it costs more to work in Alaska," he said. "But what's being done up here is very well vetted, so the bottom line is there's no need for additional notice or public comment on each individual procedure conducted on these wells."
When a company applies for permission to conduct a fracking operation, it must show it has notified land owners within a half-mile radius of a planned well-bore. Operators must also provide land owners, upon request, the application to the AOGCC.
The application requires information about the planned operation, including well details, the anticipated chemicals and volume of fracking fluids, and a plan for sampling water wells in the area to obtain baseline data before any effects from fracking could appear.
After the fracking is complete, the chemical composition and volumes of the fracking fluid must be reported to the agency and to fracfocus.org, a disclosure registry run by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and the Ground Water Protection Council.
Of the 32 fracking operations in 2016 through early October, the registry lists one on the Peninsula, for two weeks in August at a well drilled by Furie Operating Alaska at the offshore Kitchen Lights Unit. The rest occurred on the North Slope, mostly by ConocoPhillips and Caelus Energy.
Shavelson said more people than just neighboring land owners should have the chance to be informed about planned fracking operations.
"We want broader public notice and comment," said Shavelson, whose group wants oil and gas consumption reduced or stopped in part because of climate concerns.
Ken Lewandowski, a marine diesel mechanic who lives near BlueCrest's proposed well, said he's worried nearby Stariski Creek or the Inlet will be polluted by fracking fluids or other waste related to the work, hurting salmon and other wildlife.
BlueCrest has built a 14-foot-tall berm to protect the creek from surface leaks, while officials have said the design of the well will prevent problems underground, such as from leaking gas or liquids.
That doesn't reassure Lewandowski.
"I don't trust their material handling and I don't trust their fracking fluids," Lewandowski said. "I don't trust anything they're doing because they've told me thousands of times over that nothing bad can happen."
Industry: Protections already sufficient
Johnson, with BlueCrest, said fracking is no more complicated or dangerous than any other type of well work that is closely regulated by the AOGCC but is also not subject to public hearings before approval, including well workovers or drilling.
BlueCrest expects to start drilling later this month at a site where previous test drilling has been conducted. Fracking activity is expected to take place in spring, accessing oil targets in the Cosmopolitan Unit that have long been eyed by the industry.
Though the well will begin onshore, the hydraulic fracturing will take place more than a mile under the seabed and 3 miles from shore after horizontal drilling takes place, he said. The microscopic cracks in rock caused by pressure from the fracking fluid will travel 200 feet and won't come close to reaching the seabed some 7,000 feet above, he said.
The steel pipe transporting oil and natural gas to land will be inserted into another steel pipe. The outer pipe will be surrounded by cement, another protection that will prevent natural gas from migrating outside the pipe and into drinking water, Johnson said. A device inserted into the pipe uses compression waves to check the integrity of the cement along "every inch," with test results analyzed by AOGCC experts.
Kara Moriarty, president of the industry group Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said Alaska already has some of the most stringent hydraulic fracturing rules in the country.
Moriarty said the AOGCC held multiple opportunities for public comment as it developed its fracking regulations over a two-year period. But she said no one suggested a public hearing for every fracking operation was practicable or necessary.
"Frankly, requiring a public hearing for every single frack job is just a veiled attempt to keep oil in the ground," she said. "It won't add greater protection for the public, because that is what AOGCC is there for."
Experts: Earthquake hazard small
As for induced earthquakes, the chance one will be caused by fracking or fracking-related activity appears to be small in the Inlet, based on the activity there and case studies in the Lower 48, said Stephen Holtkamp, an assistant research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.
Even if one happens, the earthquake would likely be too small to cause damage, such as a magnitude 3.0 or 4.0, he said.
Wastewater injection, when fluids produced with oil or gas are put back underground, is more likely to cause the earthquakes that have been associated with fracking operations in some places in the Lower 48, he said. But the volumes of water typically reinjected into wells in Alaska have been smaller than in states where industry-induced earthquakes have been studied.
More than 100 million barrels of wastewater has been injected into the Inlet since the 1980s, but there is no known link between seismic activity and wastewater injections or fracking, he said.
Fracking has caused earthquakes when naturally occurring faults are lubricated with fluids. But in Alaska, the real earthquake hazards are natural, said Michael West, the state seismologist with the Geophysical Institute.