Hoping for jobs and lower fuel costs, an Alaska Native Corporation explores for gas

Exploration well Tolsona No. 1, located about 11 miles West of Glennallen, Alaska (Photo by Elizabeth Harball. alaska's Energy Desk - Anchorage)
Exploration well Tolsona No. 1, located about 11 miles West of Glennallen, Alaska (Photo by Elizabeth Harball. alaska’s Energy Desk – Anchorage)

Alaska Native Regional Corporation Ahtna, Inc. is searching for natural gas to reduce local energy costs and provide jobs. Last week, Ahtna, Inc. subsidiary Tolsona Oil & Gas Exploration LLC started drilling an exploration well on state land near Glennallen.

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Daniel Lee, oil and gas development manager for Ahtna, gave a tour of the new well on Monday.

“What we’re looking at currently is a great big blue piece of iron, which is a drilling rig,” said Lee. “This is a true exploration, this is a brand new hole that we are drilling in the ground.”

The drill is slowly descending thousands of feet beneath the gravel pad. Ahtna is hoping it will find enough recoverable natural gas to power their community. Ahtna, Inc. president Michelle Anderson explained high fuel costs are a big burden for Interior Alaska.

“To fill your fuel tank up here in the wintertime, for many people, it’s as much as a mortgage payment in Anchorage,” said Anderson.

The Alaska Department of Commerce reports heating fuel prices in Interior Alaska are among the highest in the state. Ahtna hopes natural gas will be a cheaper replacement. They also hope a find will mean more jobs.

Ahtna shareholder and former board member Roy S. Ewan said, “There’s just no work out here. There’s no economic development.”

Ewan said many of Ahtna’s young people move to Anchorage or Fairbanks to find work; Ahtna hopes a natural gas find will change that.

Alaska Native Regional Corporations driving energy development is a trend worth watching according to Tim Bradner, editor of the Alaska Economic Report. Bradner said in the past, private companies took the lead while Native Corporations were either passive partners or bought in later.

“This is kind of a different thing,” said Bradner, “Where the Corporations themselves are leading the exploration and putting their own money at risk.”

Fairbanks-based Regional Native Corporation Doyon, Limited is also exploring for gas in Interior Alaska.

During the tour of Ahtna’s drilling site near Glennallen, Lee said exploration means they might find gas — or they might not.

“Worst case is we get to our targeted depth and there is nothing there, and that’s considered a dry hole,” said Lee. “And with that, you reassess whether you want to move forward with further exploration wells or not.”

Lee says the company chose this spot to drill because it’s promising. However, there’s no guarantee the $11 million project will find what it’s looking for.