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Exploring for coal bed methane in Alaska

World Coal,

An Alaskan coal mining company is looking to diversify its portfolio of assets, as it announces plans to explore for coalbed methane (CBM) near Healy.

Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. has permitted a CBM exploration programme, and is looking to drill four wells along an abandoned airstrip seven miles east of Healy.

The Interior coal company holds a state exploration license over some 200 000 acres between Healy and Nenana. Earlier this year, the Alaska Supreme Coure rejected an appeal against the license; giving the green light for exploration work.

The work is set to begin imminently, with additional testing planning in 2015 if warranted by initial test results. The mining company is looking to establish of CBM could be used to power its mining operations in the region. If large enough volumes are found in testing, Usibellie has said it could export supplies for in-state use.

The work schedule

In a plan of operations filed in late June, Usibelli proposed drilling this summer.

The schedule calls for trail maintenance this spring, which would occur anyway in preparation for coal mining operations. The company would drill and test one well between early August and October, and complete reclamation work by late October.

Depending on the results from the first well, Usibelli would return next summer to conduct additional testing of the initial well and drill as many as three delineation wells.

The programme would require “no new ground disturbance,” according to Usibelli, because operations would occur on lands previously mined in the 1950s and again in the 1970s. Any project would also make use of existing roads to reach the proposed drilling pad. The pad would be situated at least 500 ft from major creeks in the region. The programme would use Healy Creek, Cripple Creek and the UCM Hangar Pond as primary water sources for operations.

Usibelli said it planned to construct the 150 ft by 150 ft Healy Creek Site No. 1 pad on an existing fill area, previously used as an airstrip to support mining operations. The dimensions of the pad are smaller than usual for natural gas exploration in Alaska because CBM  exploration wells are typically shallower than conventional exploration wells and therefore require a smaller drilling rig, according to the company.

Usibelli plans to drill the wells using either a 40 000 to 60 000 lb truck mounted rotary drill rig, or a 20 000 to 50 000 lb truck or skid-mounted diamond drill rig.

The wells would be vertical holes, drilled to a total depth of approximately 1500 ft. The company plans to drill to each coal seam and core through each seam to collect samples.

Energy markets

If the CBM reserves can be used to power Usibelli’s mining operations, they would create significant cost savings for the company. But the company also believes it would reduce demand on the electric intertie connecting the Southcentral and Interior.

The proposed well site is only 6.7 miles from a coal-fired Golden Valley Electric Association power plant in the region, one of the oldest plants in the GVEA system. The naphtha-fired North Pole Expansion Plant is capable of running on natural gas.

There is also a growing demand for natural gas in Alaska, as the Interior looks to offset reliance on fuel oil for both economic and environmental reasons. This demand could be satisfied by CBM from Usibelli’s site, if reserves prove large enough. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is leading a state-backed effort to truck North Slope liquefied natural gas to the region, and two local distribution companies are currently building out area infrastructure.

Emil Usibelli founded Usibelli Coal Mine in 1943. The company now employs about 130 people and produces more than 2 million tpa of coal. As the only operational coal mine in the state, Usibelli has long been a key component of the local energy market and currently supplies six Interior power plants. But the company also exports coal to customers in Chile, South Korea and “several other Pacific Rim destinations,” according to Usibelli.

Fighting regulation

Usibelli has fought for over a decade to receive leases and licenses that would allow it to search for and produce CBM. The company first applied for shallow gas leases in the region as early as April 2003, and submitted its proposal for an exploration license in the region in April 2004. 

Written by Sam Dodson

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