Environmentalists Fight Feds’ Fast OK of Oil Drilling in Alaska

A beluga whale, which environmentalists say face threats from oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Cook Inlet.

(CN) – Hasty approvals of offshore oil and gas surveys in southcentral Alaska will harm endangered beluga whales and other marine life, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Hilcorp Alaska intends to expand oil and gas operations into the southern part of the Cook Inlet, which extends 180 miles from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage. The company recently announced a $5.6 billion purchase of British Petroleum’s assets in Alaska.

Survey operations would include airguns fired into the water every 4.5 to 6 seconds, amounting to 800 seismic blasts per hour, according to the complaint filed by local nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper and the Center for Biological Diversity. The plaintiffs say the blasts drown out mating calls of marine mammals and cause serious hearing loss at close range.

The National Marine Fisheries Service approved Hilcorp’s activities for its surveys in the south section of the inlet this July.

According to the environmentalists, the agency found Hilcorp’s surveys would include 3,000 days of activity, 240 days of exploratory well activity per year for three years and over 100 days of geohazard surveys in three locations. Marine mammals would be bombarded by noise during a five-year period and harmed over 12,000 times a year, according to the agency’s own findings.

Hilcorp – which is not a party to Wednesday’s lawsuit – got permission to “take by harassment” 11 marine species in the Cook Inlet, including the Eastern Pacific gray whales, Alaska Dall’s porpoise, Cook Inlet beluga whale and others.

In a phone interview, local resident and director of advocacy for Cook Inletkeeper Bob Shavelson said Hilcorp does not seek input from the community.

“Instead they come in to tell us what they’re going to do,” Shavelson said. He said residents are angry and skeptical of Hilcorp’s claims that impacts will be minimal.

Shavelson said Central Alaska residents are cautious of oil operations because of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, but also because the southern portion of the Cook Inlet is considered frontier waters not yet excavated for oil or gas.

According to the plaintiffs, Hilcorp purchased 14 federal leases in Cook Inlet in 2017, after an underwater gas leak from a pipeline in the area.

“They continued to spew methane for several months after they announced to the public and federal regulators about that leak,” said Shavelson. He says that profit-over-habitat mentality shows little consideration for marine life, which will be harmed if operations move forward.

In 2012, the now-defunct Apache Alaska received a similar permit to conduct surveys in the Cook Inlet, but nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council challenged that permit approval. A federal judge found the approval violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act but allowed surveys to continue, according to senior attorney Julie Simmonds with the Center for Biological Diversity.

She says the latest complaint involves new surveys and Hilcorp’s expansion into Alaska.

“Belugas are continuing to decline. The same agency who gave Hilcorp the greenlight also recognize that a recovery plan for belugas includes reducing noise for their habitats,” Simmonds said in an interview.

Approximately 300 belugas whales remain in the area.

The groups want a finding that the approval violates several federal laws including the Endangered Species Act. They also want the judge to block the approval.

A spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declined to comment on pending litigation. An email and phone call to Hilcorp’s parent company was not returned by press time.

Hilcorp also seeks to build an offshore drilling operation in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea.

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