Panel digs into BlueCrest fracking plan

Though fracking has been happening in Alaska since the 1960s, it’s gotten new attention, spurred by horror stories coming from operations in the Lower 48, where drinking water has been contaminated. As BlueCrest Energy prepares to file permits to frack an oil well in the Cosmopolitan Unit in Cook Inlet, just north of Homer, the company is attempting to calm area residents’ concerns.

Logo Courtesy of BlueCrest Energy
Logo Courtesy of BlueCrest Energy

As BlueCrest Energy advances its plans to start hydraulic fracturing in November, local concern advances, as well.

That’s the sound of some pointed questions during a forum Cook Inletkeeper held May 17 at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center in Homer. The forum brought representatives from the company, several permitting agencies and environmental experts.

Bluecrest Energy wants to use fracking to increase crude oil production in its offshore oil wells in the Cosmopolitan Unit, seven miles north of Anchor Point.

One of the concerns with fracking is with the water that’s injected into the well to force fractures in subsurface rock formations.

Larry Burgess is the health, safety and environmental manager for BlueCrest.

“We do not want to impact anyone’s drinking water in any way,” Burgess said. “And we’ve tried to demonstrate that even locally around the surface location at the Hansen Pad, where we committed to not drilling water wells there.”

He said the company is considering getting water from a retired gravel pit now turned into lakes, but said they haven’t conducted studies yet to determine how draining that water might affect the surrounding groundwater. Before proceeding, BlueCrest will be required to obtain a temporary water use permit from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Area residents concerned about their wells were told that drilling activity would be conducted below the depth of their aquifer. The actual oil wells to be produced are below Cook Inlet, so BlueCrest will drill out directionally from shore. The fracking activity will take place 3.5 miles offshore and more than a mile under the inlet.

The fluid injected into the well will be 99.5 percent water and sand. The fracking process involves injecting about 1,800 barrels of this sandy slurry, 17 times, BlueCrest officials say.

Of the 0.5 percent of chemicals BlueCrest plans to use, most are benign — things found in food additives. Of the others, Surfactant is an alcohol derivative, and Biocide, used to kill microbes, is found in some hair products and cleaning agents.

Briana Mordick, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that while the chemicals used in fracking aren’t necessarily dangerous, their effects aren’t completely known.

“Those chemic don’t just go down there and sit,” Mordick said. “They’re designed to react with each other and we don’t always know what those reaction products are and what’s coming back out. And they’re designed to react with the formation, as well, and that’s another thing where there’s some information gaps in our understanding.”

Another concern is chemicals ending up somewhere they’re not supposed to. The fractures aren’t expected to grow more than 150 to 200 feet, so won’t reach beyond the confining layers of rock surrounding the targeted formation. After fracking, the water is produced back out of the drill hole and must be injected into a permitted wastewater disposal well. Burgess said BlueCrest hasn’t selected a disposal well site yet but is investigating some promising options.

Cathy Forester, chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, detailed a long list of construction and testing standards her agency requires. She said AOGCC won’t approve a permit unless the project meets safety and technical requirements and has all other necessary permits in place.

“No fracturing is allowed unless and until all wells, not just the fracked well, but all wells in the affected area, meet these stringent construction and mechanical integrity requirements,” Forester said.

BlueCrest plans to submit its permit applications this spring. The application won’t become public information until after approval is granted. And even then, the public will have to go looking for it.

“There’s not a public notice and there’s not a hearing,” Forester said.

Much of the discussion centered on how fracking in Alaska differs from horror stories in the Lower 48. Alaska’s geology and regulatory requirements are different, panelists say.

“In over 50 years of hydraulic fracturing, Alaska has not suffered a single documented instance of subsurface damage to an underground source of drinking water caused by this or any other oil and gas well operation,” Forester said.

Fracking has been happening in Cook Inlet since 1965. One offshore well in BlueCrest’s Cosmopolitan unit has already been fracked — in 2010, when the site was owned by Pioneer Natural Resources.

That doesn’t guarantee future safety, however. Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, thanked BlueCrest for being forthcoming with information and participating in the forum, but said that change needs to happen — at a larger scale than just this project.

“I look at oil and gas as, like, driving a Subaru, and then when you throw fracking on top it just becomes a Hummer,” Shavelson said. “It’s the same problem, it’s just a little bit worse. … So the point here is to get information out and realize this is an element of a larger piece of the pie. If you believe climate change and ocean acidification are serious issues, then we better address all of these things.”

BlueCrest officials say they’ll submit permit applications in May and June and hope to begin fracking in November.

Cook Inletkeeper has additional information on the BlueCrest project on its website, at www.cookinletkeeper.org. Information about the chemicals BlueCrest proposes using can be found at fracfocus.org.