Drilling and Fracking Under Protected Lands is Bad for Alaska

Our Protected Lands Should Stay Protected

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Submit Comments to senate.finance@akleg.gov; house.fisheries@akleg.gov

HB82/SB 62 are bills sponsored by Governor Dunleavy that would allow lateral drilling and hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—under protected lands in Alaska, including the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area (CHA). If passed, it will re-write the rule book on oil and gas extraction in protected lands and waters across the State of Alaska, including State Game Sanctuaries, State Game Refuges, State Parks, and State Critical Habitat Areas.

The bill says

“Unless specifically provided, a statute that restricts the surface use of an oil and gas lease or a gas only lease in specified acreage does not also restrict subsurface use for oil and gas resource development that can be accomplished by drilling from acreage that does not have surface use restrictions.”

There are those who say this bill is only about Kachemak Bay CHA, but the language in Section 1 does not specify Kachemak Bay; it is general to any statute that restricts surface use of oil and gas, and would apply to any protected land and water in Alaska. While drilling is permitted in most places all over the State, we have closed some of our most productive and rich public lands and waters to oil and gas extraction to promote the health of fish, wildlife, and habitat. It is necessary that we maintain this balance if we want to continue to to support wild places, wild salmon, big game, their supporting industries and our Alaskan way of life.

The legislature has protected some of our richest and most productive public lands and waters for a reason, and it was not to allow lateral drilling and fracking.

SB 62 would be in direct conflict with Alaska Statute 16.20.500, which states that the purpose of the Kachemak Bay CHA is to:

 “protect and preserve habitat areas especially crucial to the perpetuation of fish and wildlife, and to restrict all other uses not compatible with that primary purpose.”

 In all likelihood, it is also in direct conflict with the statutory purpose of every other State Park, Game Refuge or Sanctuary, Critical Habitat Area where it would be applied. 

Hilcorp Cannot be Trusted Under Kachemak Bay CHA.

Hilcorp owns the pads from which the directional drilling under the Kachemak Bay CHA are proposed to operate. Hilcorp not the kind of actor who should be operating under a Critical Habitat Area. Their record is so bad that the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has concluded that Hilcorp has a culture of disregard for regulatory standards: 

“The disregard for regulatory compliance is endemic to Hilcorp's approach to its Alaska operations...Hilcorp’s conduct is inexcusable.”

What is their record? According to Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation records, over the course of operations in Alaska beginning in 2012, Hilcorp is responsible for over 90 crude oil spills or discharges, including spilling 10,000 gallons on Alaska’s North Slope in 2015. In 2017,  a gas leak in Cook Inlet remained un-repaired for over four months while it leaked roughly 100,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day. More recently, they are responsible for an 8,000 gallon slop oil spill in 2020. 

Seismic Exploration on Protected Lands and Waters

Seismic surveys will in all likelihood need to be conducted in the CHA and any other protected areas before horizontal drilling can occur.

SB 62 will bring seismic exploration into our protected lands and waters

Seismic surveys can be done year after year, as the results of any one proprietary study are not available to any other company. It is well-known that seismic surveys threaten marine mammals, and kill large numbers of zooplankton, disrupting the food web. They have no place in Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area, or Alaska’s State Parks and reserves. These areas are protected for a reason, and they should stay that way. 

Horizontal Drilling Generally Means Fracking

While HB 82/SB 62 do not explicitly name fracking, according to the US Energy Information Administration, hydraulically fractured horizontal wells accounted for 69% of all oil and natural gas wells drilled in the United States and 83% of the total linear footage drilled in 2016, and the trend was steadily increasing. Hydraulically fractured horizontal wells became the predominant method of new U.S. crude oil and natural gas development in October 2011. 

Hydraulic fracturing involves forcing a liquid under high pressure from a wellbore against a rock formation until it fractures. The injected fluid contains a proppant—small, solid particles, usually sand or a man-made granular solid of similar size—that wedges open the expanding fractures. The proppant keeps the fracture open, allowing hydrocarbons such as crude oil and natural gas to flow more easily from the additional surface area to the rock formation provided by the fractures back to the wellbore (the drilled hole) and then to the surface.

Fishing vs. Fracking

Legislators might be tempted to think that we can both frack and fish in the same region. But, as can be seen in the information below, the statistics and reports do not support that view. According to the USGS and the EPA, there are a wide range of risks to marine and freshwater associated with hydraulic fracturing:

  • Stress on surface water and ground water supplies from the withdrawal of large volumes of water used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing;
  • Contamination of underground sources of drinking water and surface waters resulting from spills, faulty well construction, or by other means;
  • Adverse impacts from discharges into surface waters or from disposal into underground injection wells; and
  • Air pollution resulting from the release of volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants, and greenhouse gases.
  • Induced seismicity from the  injection of waste fluids into deep disposal wells

It is important to note that the 2005 Energy Policy Act exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act. This regulatory exclusion is often referred to as the Halliburton loophole and it means that the “produced water” that comes back out of the well does not meet Safe Drinking Act Standards. Produced water is full of heavy metals from the earth, and each well can require up 40,000 gallons of chemicals to drill. An analysis by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health identified 157 chemicals used in fracking that are toxic. The back-flow it is toxic and presents high risks to fish, wildlife and habitats in protected lands and waters nearby. We break down some of the risks below. 

Water Withdrawals

The average water withdrawal in a fracking operation is 3 million gallons per well and can be up to 16 million gallons. 

Where will the water come from? In the case of Kachemak Bay, most likely from The Anchor River, which has its own Critical Habitat Area upstream, which would be impacted from these withdrawals. In this region, fracking will mean drawing down water levels in and around the Anchor River—which in turn means warmer water and harm to essential fish habitat. 

Across Alaska, we can expect enormous freshwater withdrawals on the perimeter of areas closed to oil and gas drilling will have significant negative impacts on the protected areas; this will mean taking water from those protected areas in the case where aquifers cross the boundary of protected areas. SB 62 will be a direct harm to fish populations in protected waters, and will draw down essential aquifers, drying out lakes, tundra, wetlands and peatlands—key habitat for many of our waterfowl and big game species. 

Alaska’s waters are already warming, threatening  the foundation of our fisheries. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, over the past half-century, annual available water has declined 62% on the western Kenai Peninsula; wetlands have decreased 6—11% per decade in surface area on the Kenai Lowlands.  Current trends indicate that the southern Kenai Peninsula will loose 10-20% of our snowpack by 2030-2059. The additional stress to our salmon streams and to our protected lands and waters is unacceptable if we want healthy fisheries in the future. 

Leaks and Groundwater

Well bores are surrounded by casings, which pass through underground aquifers and groundwater. Casings are meant to act as a barrier between underground water and the shaft through which the toxic frack fluid and gas flow.  But casings are known to fail or break during the fracturing process, allowing the frack fluid or naturally-occurring contaminants to contaminate groundwater. 

Produced water contains high levels of heavy metals that that are harmful to living organisms. This is no small mater, when according to studies by Duke University, up to to 16% of hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells spill liquids every year.

When casings fail, frack fluid and methane can leak from the well bore directly into the water supply, causing dangerous gas buildups, and making water unfit to drink, which has occurred all around the country.  For example, Scientific American found “a string of documented cases of gas escaping into drinking water – in Pennsylvania and other states.” In December 2011, US EPA released a 121-page draft report linking the contamination of drinking water wells near the town of Pavillion, Wyoming to nearby gas drilling. We cannot allow this kind of contamination in our towns and our protected lands and waters. 

Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve has done some groundwater surveys in the area near Kachemak Bay specified in SB 62 that included 2 wells near Anchor Point. One well is 87 ft and the other is 248 ft below sea level. There is a high chance that the activities proposed by this bill could contaminate these and other large aquifers beneath the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area, the Anchor River Critical Habitat Area, as well as water used by Anchor Point residents.

Harm to Key Industries

Horizontal Drilling and fracking take too much fresh water (from salmon streams and aquifers and reservoirs that feed salmon streams), they make too much toxic water, it is too likely to hit underground aquifers, and statistically there are too many spills and leaks of toxic water. We can’t both frack and fish in the Kachemak Bay CHA, or in any other protected area. 

Harm to fish populations will hurt Commercial Fishermen, guides, lodges, and the broader tourism  industry in the Kachemak Bay region and across Alaska. These are industries are a key pillar in the Alaskan economy.

According to the 2018 “Economic Impact of Alaska’s Visitor Industry” by the McDowell Group, Alaska’s visitor industry has shown strong growth over the last decade, reflecting significant increases in visitor volume. Between 2008 and 2017, visitor volume increased by 15 percent (and by 27 percent since the industry’s low point in 2010), reaching a record 2.2 million visitors in 2017. Over the same period, the number of visitor industry jobs grew by 20 percent; and both labor income and economic output grew by 32 percent. Growth in the Kenai Peninsula and in the is particularly significant. 

Consider, for example, the charter industry, which would be one of the sectors most directly effected in the Kachemak Bay region. In 2019, NOAA Fisheries released the first full estimate of the economic contribution of the charter fishing sector in Southern Alaska. They estimated that the charter sector generated almost $250 million in economic activity (measured in total regional output) in Southern Alaska in 2011 and more than $165 million annually in recent years (2013-2015). In recent years, between 350,000 and 400,000 Alaska saltwater anglers fished about 1 million fishing days each. 

In conclusion, we repeat, SB 62 would be in direct conflict with Alaska Statute 16.20.500, which states that the purpose of the Kachemak Bay CHA is to:

“protect and preserve habitat areas especially crucial to the perpetuation of fish and wildlife, and to restrict all other uses not compatible with that primary purpose.” 

In all likelihood, it is also in direct conflict with the statutory purpose of every other State Park, Game Refuge or Sanctuary, Critical Habitat Area where it would be applied. Please vote this down.


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