Friday, February 8, 2019

Alaska heats up as regulators fail to watchdog oil and gas industry

“I think this is happening because I have been firmly standing up for the public interest in oil and gas conservation”     

                                                     Hollis French, Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Chair

According to University of Fairbanks climate scientist Rick Thoman, the average temperature in Alaska's most northern reaches rose 2.8 degrees Celsius over the 50 year norm, more than three times higher than the national average.

As an oil state, it's not surprising that industry is responsible for the lions share of the state's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation reported last year that industry emits a whopping 53% of the state's total GHG emissions, although recent evidence suggests the numbers could be as much as 60% higher.

On Dec 18, 2018 citizens urged the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AOGCC) to step up it's enforcement of waste rules to reduce industry's carbon and methane greenhouse gas emissions.  Kate Troll, Lois Epstein with the Anchorage Wilderness Society (TWS) and Ceal Smith with the Alaska Climate Action Network (AK CAN) delivered petitions, collectively signed by more than 400 Alaskans, and gave public testimony outlining the reasons why this action was important. 

Ceal Smith with AK CAN presented data obtained from AOGCC that showed more than 1,400 gas flare and venting events in excess of one hour occurred between Jan 1, 2012 and Feb 1, 2017; nearly one event every day for the past five years.   According to agency rules, any release in excess of one hour is unauthorized waste that must be justified or a fine levied if found to be without cause or due to negligence. Thirty-four of the venting/flaring incidences released more than 100,000 thousand cubic feet (Mcf)*of greenhouse gas, as shown in Table 1 below.

TABLE 1: Gas flaring or venting events greater than 100,000 Mcf that occurred between Jan 1, 2012 and Feb 1, 2017, as reported by industry to the AOGCC.

In subsequent follow-up, the Commissioners were unable to provide evidence of a single enforcement action relating to the 1,400 flare/venting events.  They offered instead, information on 4 unrelated violations, two more than 10 years old.

Given the alarming lack of oversight revealed in our filing, the official agency response from Commissioners Foerster and Seamount, Jr., (posted below) is disturbing.   They misrepresented the facts in several important ways.

First, and of least importance is that the Alaska Climate Action Network submitted the petition signed by more than 300 Alaskans', in support of Kate Trolls original petition and request for hearing, yet no mention of AKCAN or Lois Epstein of The Wilderness Society's testimony was made. 
More importantly, the Commissioner's assertion that "all witnesses were open about their root concern, the reason the hearing was requested, which is climate change" is incorrect. Troll, Epstein and Smith all stated clearly that, while escalating climate change was driving citizen concerns, the petitions and subsequent testimony was about enforcing existing waste statutes (as point #3 in their response letter posted below confirms).

The Commissioners "findings" are of even greater concern.  The assertion that "no specific example or claim of waste was raised during the hearing" defies the evidence.  In testimony, Kate Troll asked about compliance and (as noted above) Ceal Smith reiterated the question in relation to the >1,400 releases greater than 1 hour and drew specific attention to the 34 releases in excess of 100,000 Mcf (shown in Table 1 above) in her testimony.

The Commissioners response, and their assertion that "both testimony and the questions raised...appear to stem from a general lack of familiarity with how the AOGCC addresses issues related to venting and flaring" appears to be an attempt to brush away public concerns.

We received a separate response from Commissioner and Chair, Hollis French.  French's response (posted below) addressed our concerns, and the specifics of our testimony, much more thoroughly. 

Shortly after we received the AOGCC's response, Governor Dunleavy moved to remove Hollis French from his public seat on the Commission.  We recently learned that former Anchorage Mayor, Dan Sullivan, known for his close ties to Alaska's oil and gas industry, applied for the public seat on the AOGCC on Dec 22, 2018, just 4 days after the waste rule hearing and weeks before the public became aware of the Governors effort to remove Hollis French from the Commission.    This raises the question if Sullivan knew in advance that Governor Dunleavy would attempt to remove Hollis French. 

In statements made to the media, French responded:

“I think this is happening because I have been firmly standing up for the public interest in oil and gas conservation”

“It’s about what we do as a watchdog agency,” “My view is a watchdog has to roam the whole property. And their view is, ‘no, we’re going to put the watchdog on a short chain.’ And I just disagreed with that.”​

Ironically, there are worrisome signs of that emissions from Alaska's North Slope could be on the rise from permafrost thaw resulting from climate change, itself a result of fossil fuel production and combustion.

A 2014 study, Landscape and Permafrost Changes in the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field, from the Geobotany Center at University of Fairbanks, documented numerous changes in the permafrost and surrounding landscape and warned that it could have significant implications for infrastructure, including oil and gas well integrity.  

In April 2017 a BP well failed and leaked oil and gas for days before it could be controlled.  According to the AOGCC emergency order, the root cause of the incident was a combination of the well construction geometry outer casing shoe set in the permafrost and thawing permafrost and subsidence.  As reported by Inside Climate News, a second well failed for similar reasons in Dec 2018.  The AOGCC called for another inquiry and scheduled an emergency hearing for today, Feb 13, 2019.  After failing 3 times to get on hearing call, we are awaiting the transcript.  

As temperatures in Alaska's Arctic approach 3 degrees C, this is no time for a greenhouse gas coverup. We already have serious problems with the fox guarding the state's resource hen house in Alaska.   If the newly elected Gov. Dunleavy illegally removes Hollis French simply for doing his job, it's only going to get worse.  

Research on these issues is on-going, check back for updates. 


* 100K Mcf of gas = 5,509 metric tons of C02 or roughly the equivalent of adding 13.5 million cars/yr. to our highways.

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AK CAN's written testimony to oil and gas commission, Dec 18, 2018

Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission December 18, 2018 Hearing Written comments submitted to:   ...