Cook Inlet natural gas exploration due to slow

Swenson: There are about 1.3 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves remaining

Posted: Friday, February 20, 2009

Exploration and development drilling for natural gas in Cook Inlet is likely to slow in 2009 and this could worsen problems in the deliverability of gas to consumers in Southcentral Alaska during winter cold snaps, the director of the state Division of Oil and Gas says.

"We think 2009 will be a tough year for the Inlet," said the division's Director Kevin Banks.

Banks and Bob Swenson, director of the state Division of Geologic and Geophysical Surveys, on Feb. 9 briefed the Senate Resources Committee in Juneau on Cook Inlet gas prospects.

Swenson said there are about 1.3 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves remaining in Cook Inlet gas fields, out of 8.7 trillion cubic feet original discovered mostly in the 1960s.

In theory, the remaining gas is about a 10-year supply for the Southcentral region, but as the gas fields are depleted, it's likely that not all of that gas can be produced, Swenson told the Resources committee.

The problem in deliverability comes with aging gas wells, which are declining in daily production. Several years ago the producing companies were able to ramp up production to meet needs during winter cold snaps, but they can't do that now.

Gas supplies were tight during the recent cold snap in Southcentral and gas was diverted to local utilities from the liquefied natural gas plant near Kenai.

Banks said Cook Inlet drilling in 2008 was fairly brisk, partly because of commitments to drill new wells by ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc. and Marathon Oil Co. given when the state supported a two-year extension of a federal export permit for the liquefied natural gas plant owned by the two companies.

The outlook for 2009 is less certain. "There will be a lot less activity," Banks told the legislators.

There are several reasons, he said. The established Cook Inlet companies are willing to invest in new gas development when they have a customer willing to buy, but the market for gas is limited to the LNG plant and local utilities.

There are independent companies interested in small onshore gas prospects on the Kenai Peninsula and on the west side of Cook Inlet, because small, incremental quantities of gas can be sold, Banks said.

Other independents are trying to raise money to bring a special rig to Cook Inlet to drill offshore gas and oil prospects, but it is uncertain whether they will be successful.

But even if an explorer makes a major gas discovery, there would be no market, at least not immediately.

Committee member Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said he understands the problem.

"I can't see any economic reason why companies would invest in exploration if there is no way to sell the gas," he said.

Banks told the senate committee that a typical onshore exploration well can cost $10 million and an offshore exploration well might cost $25 million to $30 million.

Because of those high costs, the companies say they have to get a price for their gas that is high enough to repay the investment and earn a return.

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