The Bureau of Land Management's Rural Energy Program involves studying the feasibility of using local energy resources (e.g. coalbed natural gas or geothermal) as an alternative energy source for remote Alaskan villages. In 2000, the BLM entered into an agreement with the State of Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys (DGGS) to accomplish these studies. The Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have also provided support. The Program continues under a 5-year agreement with the USGS.
More than 150 roadless Alaskan communities are at an economic disadvantage because of high energy prices. Diesel fuel is the primary source of electricity and heat in rural Alaska and its transport to roadless communities contributes to the overall energy costs.
Coalbed natural gas (CBNG) is a potential energy source for rural Alaska communities and small scale CBNG production could boost rural Alaska's potential to become self-sufficient through the production of a local, cleaner, low cost energy source.
There are more than 35 rural villages situated on or adjacent to coal resources. A local energy source, such as CBNG, would reduce environmental risks associated with fuel transportation and storage, lower energy costs and boost local economies. Alaska has an abundance of CBNG resources with an estimated 1,037 trillion cubic feet (Barker, 2000), that could be used to benefit these communities.
The State of Alaska, an early partner in the Rural Energy Program, identified Chignik, Fort Yukon, and Wainwright as priority sites to determine whether CBNG would be a viable local energy source. In 2002, BLM participated in the unsuccessful drilling project in Chignik to locate coal beds. In 2004 the USGS and the BLM drilled a well at Ft. Yukon to gather data on a coalbed that lies beneath the village. The data gathered from this well indicated that economic production of methane from the underlying coal is not feasible.
The program has moved to Wainwright for the summers of 2007 – 2009 and, working with the North Slope Borough and the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., has drilled 9 wells. The drilling has identified good potential in a coalbed at a depth of 1,280 feet and has confirmed that the coalbed extends at least two miles from the village. Data have been collected to determine methane saturation in the coal, gas composition, water chemistry, downhole temperature profile, and the producibility of the coalbed natural gas. The data obtained thus far suggest that coalbed natural gas from this coalbed has the potential to provide a local source of energy to Wainwright. The BLM and USGS hope to continue with well testing and delineation drilling during the summer of 2010. The data collected will be shared with the North Slope Borough and Arctic Slope Regional Corp. The decision to move ahead with development of the coalbed natural gas will be made by the North Slope Borough, Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and the village of Wainwright.
The BLM Rural Energy Program is also working with USGS to investigate the feasibility of remote villages using geothermal resources within the state.