Coal-bed methane proposals raise a certain stink in the Valley

Posted: Monday, September 15, 2003

PALMER - Until last week, Becky Washburn didn't know what coal-bed methane was.

Then Washburn got word of town hall meetings in Big Lake and Palmer to talk about plans to drill for methane gas trapped in coal seams from Talkeetna to Chickaloon beneath both public and private property. If the plans are carried out, methane, which is also the main component of natural gas, would be sold to utilities in the area.

A microbiology lab technician in her 50s, Washburn runs a small nursery with her twin on a farm where both grew up.

"We work really hard to keep our place beautiful," she said Wednesday night as she left the Palmer meeting. "If they come in, it's going to be over our dead bodies."

That's the nature of the coal-bed methane controversy in the Valley: gut-level and fueled by unknowns and what even state officials admit are meager specific regulations.

About 450 people packed into Palmer Junior/Middle School cafeteria Wednesday night, standing along the walls when the folding chairs overflowed. About 150 people attended a meeting Monday at Big Lake Elementary. Another 350 people crowded the Sutton Elementary gym for a meeting last month.

Amid occasional anti-drilling catcalls at the meetings this week, many people expressed fears that their drinking-water wells will dry up or become polluted and that few state laws protect them.

To recover methane from coal seams, gas producers pump off vast volumes of water from the coal beds. As the water rises, the gas rises too, responding to the reduction in pressure. The water is often contaminated with salts and has to be disposed of.

Posters on the walls both nights showed the image of gas exploration in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

Phil Hoy, a Gillette, Wyo., businessman flown to Alaska by several Palmer families, addressed both meetings with "horror stories" of Wyoming gas drilling that killed creek-side grass with salt water and wrecked his water well.

That simply won't happen here, promised officials with Evergreen Resources (Alaska) Inc., the company at the center of the shallow gas controversy in the Valley.

Evergreen plans to reinject water deep into the ground, far below drinking-water wells and beneath the coal seams themselves, said John Tanigawa, Evergreen's Alaska projects manager.

Coal sits much deeper here than in Wyoming, Tanigawa said at both meetings, so shallow water wells won't be drained when the company pumps water off the seams.

"Will it ever happen? No," he said. "I guarantee you, the state of Alaska has some of the strictest oil and gas regulations in the world."

Tanigawa, however, did admit that he erroneously said in Sutton that Evergreen would not use hydrochloric acid in its Alaska wells.

His company, a subsidiary of an established Denver corporation, already operates two clusters of four pilot wells between Wasilla and Houston.

The state approved six additional Evergreen leases in February 2000, with little fanfare. Officials said they received little more than a dozen comments.

But the company applied for 11 new leases this summer, and that's when coal-bed methane was noticed.

Chickaloon Village environmental staffers learned of the new leases and in July held a small meeting with state oil and gas managers. That session led to the Sutton meeting, where a boisterous crowd grew so big it surprised even the meeting's organizers.

Responding to calls that night, officials from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough promised to hold the two meetings this week.

Wednesday night in Palmer, a stream of curious landowners searched for their property on gas lease maps taped up on the cafeteria walls.

Pio Cottini, a land surveyor at the Palmer meeting, eyeballed the leases covering land he and his parents own on Wasilla-Fishhook Road. But Cottini said he's not worried, because Evergreen has promised not to drill unless the landowner agrees.

Cottini attended an Evergreen presentation two years ago, he said. "This isn't new. People just didn't know about it, I guess."

Angry critics of the state's handling of shallow gas, however, continued to take state legislators to task for helping Evergreen and other companies avoid scrutiny.

Sen. Scott Ogan, a Palmer Republican, now works for Evergreen as a consultant. Before getting that job, he co-wrote legislation creating the state's shallow gas program as a member of the House in 1996.

Last session, Rep. Vic Kohring, a Wasilla Republican, sponsored a bill that, among other things, limited public notice on gas leases and allowed the state to override local government permits on drilling.

Neither legislator attended any of the meetings.

"Citizens, not the government, got some information and started organizing," Chris Rose, a Sutton attorney who helped coordinate the Sutton meeting, said Wednesday night. "The reason we're here now is not because the government is looking out for us."

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