Natural gas reservoir not quite ready

Posted: Tuesday, February 22, 2011

ANCHORAGE — The decision to close the Kenai Peninsula liquefied natural gas export plant could make more gas available for heating homes and businesses in south-central Alaska, but not for a couple of years, the Anchorage Daily News reported Monday.

A multi-million dollar project to store gas in a depleted reservoir under the Kenai River will be completed in 2012 or 2013.

Until then, customers could face disruptions in the event very cold weather combines with a Cook Inlet gas rig accident or other equipment failure, or an earthquake.

Southcentral utilities are cooperating on ways to switch or share power in the event of an emergency. They could ask residents to curtail their energy usage to avoid gas supply disruptions. More extreme measures could include rolling blackouts.

“It’s better to be prepared than panicked,” said John Sims, spokesman for Enstar Natural Gas. Co., which has 350,000 customers.

Utilities can take more than a dozen internal steps before a gas disruption turns into a public emergency. They can increase hydropower generation or switch to diesel fuel at the Municipal Light & Power plant in Northeast Anchorage, for example.

“We’ve always cooperated with our sister utilities,” said Burke Wick, director of system control at Chugach Electric Association Inc., the region’s largest electric power provider.

Frequently, when some sort of weather or equipment-related problem erupts in Southcentral Alaska, the utilities start calling each other and making adjustments. “But nobody knows about it. No one loses power and no one loses gas,” Wick said.

In 2009, the cities and the utilities unveiled an “Energy Watch” campaign that lays out the steps the public will be asked to take during a natural gas emergency. The steps are designed to reduce gas consumption and avoid the worst-case scenario: no heat or power for homes and businesses.

What would the city do if the worst happened?

“If we had a large portion of the community without power and heat, we’d (want) to activate some of our shelters so people could be kept warm and fed,” said George Vakalis, the Anchorage municipal manager.

The city would open an emergency operations center and shelters as needed, he said.

The city would petition for outside help if the problem got bigger than it alone could handle, Vakalis said.

The closure of the Nikiski plant might stretch out the region’s gas reserves for a few more years, but it’s not certain if local utilities will be able to take advantage of the gas that would have been exported.

If the two companies that own the Nikiski plant — Conoco Phillips and Marathon Oil — don’t find a big customer for the gas, they will have to shut in at least some of their gas wells. The wells are old, and it might not be possible to restart some of them in the future.

“At least some of them are not going to come back at the same rate they were previously producing,” said David Hite, an Anchorage petroleum geologist who has studied the Cook Inlet gas fields for the U.S. Department of Energy.

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