Officials from Buccaneer gave tours of the "Endeavour Spirit of Independence" jackup rig in the past week while the rig was undergoing electrical and plumbing adjustments to ready it for work in Cook Inlet.
Rep. Paul Seaton, Kenai Peninsula Mayor Mike Navarre and Assemblyman Bill Smith, along with a handful of others, were shown around the rig.
Many might have noticed the Cook Inlet Spill Prevention Inc. (CISPRI) ship, also called Endeavor, but spelled differently, moored by the Endeavour as work was done at the harbor. Buccaneer is a member of CISPRI, and is required to have its services on hand during any work performed on it, including the plumbing and electrical work underway at the Homer Deep Water Dock. The rig, calculated at 40 stories high, if counting by standard construction practices, and 28 stories high according to Buccaneer's 14-foot-story calculation, is destined for the offshore Tyonek Unit work first before being moved closer to Anchor Point this fall.
Since the corporation was behind schedule, and needed to move off the dock to make way for a cruise ship scheduled to be there, the plan switched to an extended Homer stay for the next two weeks.
While it was the jackup rig that occupied the horizon on Kachemak Bay, it was Buccaneer Alaska's plans to drill on its prospect 20 miles out East End Road that caught a number of people by surprise. Neighbors and whole villages within the five-mile radius of the planned site say they were not notified.
Last week's visit from Buccaneer officials and presentation to the Homer City Council was the first most people had heard of its onshore plans for Homer. The "West Eagle Unit" is located at the Kenai Peninsula Borough gravel pit off East End Road on the route to Basargin Road, which leads to Razdolna. It is a sparsely populated area set aside for grazing and has rich agriculture fields within the 10-mile radius.
"It hasn't been widely publicized to those of us who stay in the loop, or we would have heard about this," said Nina Faust, who lives on the bluff not far from the proposed project. "It's not just the drilling operation, but the additional footprint that goes with it: A compressor station, a pump station and a pipeline."
A lot of questions need to deal with any operations that could impact water, Faust said. "We don't have good water quality in many instances. A good well is like gold here in Homer. Water is our main issue."
Yet, the permitting is in the beginning stages and opportunities for public questions and input lay ahead, Buccaneer officials say.
"The work we've done there is primarily looking at the geology," said Buccaneer's spokesperson, Richard Loomis. "We're looking at all that surrounds the underground. To actually get out there to drill, we've got some steps that have got to be done."
Those steps are air and water quality permits that need to be applied for with government agencies like the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Division of Natural Resources. Since that is the case, the work planned to begin this month has been postponed. There won't be any activity until late 2013, Loomis said.
That gives time for many public discussions and opportunities along the way to give testimony.
As envisioned by Buccaneer, the operation is planned on a "small footprint."
Compared to the Buccaneer drilling project underway on Kenai Loop, which is next to Walmart and the airport, the West Eagle Unit is an opportunity to conduct an onshore job in a densely populated area, Loomis said.
"Right in the middle of Kenai has been a challenging environment to work in. I think we've been able to do that successfully by keeping the footprint small," Loomis said. "We bought, about 10 months before, the Glacier Rig 1. It's designed by guys on the rig – it's good for workers and it's good for the environment. We'll be using it (at West Eagle) for pad drilling and keep centralized to minimize the footprint."
No public notice
Due to the current Kenai Peninsula Borough rule, only at the time when leases are made is there a provision for public comment. In this case, that was 10 years ago when Buccaneer first won the bid in a competitive process to lease the unit.
The West Eagle Unit is near Circle Lake off Basargin Road on the way to the Russian Old Believer village of Razdolna. Voznesenka and Kachemak Selo also are in the area, along with about a dozen residents in the immediate vicinity of the proposed drilling operation.
"Buccaneer is at the beginning of applying for air and waste permits, which go up for public review – and we've encouraged them to hold a community meeting as to what they plan for that area," said Borough Mayor Mike Navarre.
The borough has known of the plan because Buccaneer Alaska submitted an application for a temporary land use permit through the borough.
Marcus Mueller, Borough Land Management officer, said the gravel pit itself will continue to operate as a site that supplies fill for state and borough roads. The borough's only role in the Buccaneer project is in reviewing a land use permit, which has not yet been granted, Mueller said.
"The duration of the permit would be up to five years, but the duration has yet to be determined," he said. The Alaska Division of Oil and Gas conducted the lease sale in 2002 because the state owns all subsurface rights, regardless of who owns the actual surface of land in Alaska.
An additional permit with the borough will need to be obtained to do seismic work in the area, Mueller said. "They are looking around in the same area, like they did in Kenai and like Apache did at Anchor Point north earlier this week," Mueller said.
Mayor Navarre pointed out there is an overlapping grazing lease included on the land. "The grazing lease hasn't been used, but it is still active with the state," he said.
The plan to use the gravel pit for its pad drilling operation means it will be quicker to develop and less land will be disturbed, Navarre said.
Vice president of Land and Business for Buccaneer Alaska, Mark Landt, said due to the backlog of projects on the company's plate, the West Eagle work won't begin anytime soon. "We won't be able to get our plan of development put in until spring," he said.
Buccaneer had the task of getting the 40-story high jackup rig from Singapore to Alaska on a deadline. In addition to that, the company had drilled its "Walmart" concern in early 2012 and got it to market with Enstar four months later.
Questions for the future
A drilling operation comes with a lot of other infrastructure that has local environment-watchers nervous.
The actual well may be safe, but leaks and hydrocarbon emissions have been the culprits when things went wrong for gas drilling in the Lower 48, Faust points out.
"These projects grow out from there like cancer cells that destroys the area. It depends on how it goes and how much additional development, and it also depends on whether they will find anything," Faust said. "Many people have fought oil and gas development for years because of the treasure that Kachemak Bay is and it is not a compatible use. It's time for us to get off the fossil fuel tit, so to speak."
Key questions for Buccaneer should concentrate on what they plan to do with drilling ponds, or any interactions that impact ground water. A proactive stand property owners can take ahead of time is to secure their water rights, Faust said.
"If you don't have your water rights, you don't have a leg to stand on. If do you have water rights, you have an opportunity to challenge and hopefully protect your water."
Cook Inletkeeper has all the information on its website and is available to walk people through navigating the steps to help them establish water rights.
Roberta Highland, the director of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, just found out about the project. "I don't understand how it could have gotten to where it is without the Conservation Society having a clue," Highland said. "One of things we pride ourselves on is agriculture. Homer is really embracing this and wants to increase it."
Highland's concern is this project gives oil and gas development a toe in the door. "It is one that the Anchor Point area has a difference of opinion from Homer. Past the Fox River is in the Homer area, and it is precious. Once we start get running over by oil and gas, we will be on a road that many of us do not want to be on," she said.
"It's always been alarming that the state owns the sub rights and we're trod upon by mineral development. The state is out of control in my estimation. We get treated like third class citizens when these things come up. We're in an environmental crisis and it doesn't even get talked about. Cook Inlet is continually a sacrificial lamb."
Highland was talking about crises in climate change, ocean acidification and the reduction of many fisheries, as well as the endangered Cook Inlet beluga.
Buccaneer president and CEO, Jim Watt, wanted to get the message to the public that the company is committed to being a good corporate citizen. "We will be providing outreach to the community, listening to those impacted by the operations, to assure preservation of the environment and minimize any disruption to the local community. We are currently drilling and producing gas in the city limits of Kenai, near the airport and next to Walmart, and fully recognize the need to work together and communicate with our stakeholders."
The previous report was first published by The Homer Tribune and is republished here with permission.