Belugas, infrastructure among concerns for Lower Cook Inlet oil lease

A few Kenai-area residents turned out Thursday to offer their advice on a draft environmental impact statement for a proposed oil and gas lease sale in Lower Cook Inlet.

The draft, prepared by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the federal agency that oversees oil and gas leasing in federal waters, outlines a proposed sale in an area of Cook Inlet beginning south of Kalgin Island and ending at a line extending westward from Seldovia. If the Secretary of the Department of the Interior approves the plan, a lease sale would take place in June 2017.

Mark Storzer, the regional supervisor for BOEM’s Office of Environment in Anchorage, said the EIS will simply set up the structure for a lease sale to take place in the future.

“We always make sure to emphasize with people that this does not mean a lease sale is going to take place,” Storzer said.

The current plan presents 224 blocks, each nine square miles, in the region that would be offered for lease. A number of alternatives accommodate critical habitat for endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales, threatened Northern sea otters and the drift gillnet fishery that operates in the area north of a line extending west from Anchor Point. Another alternative would offer all the area for lease but would prohibit any company from discharging drilling fluids or cuttings into Cook Inlet.

The agency held multiple public hearings in the Cook Inlet region last week — one in Anchorage on Monday, in Homer on Wednesday and in Kenai on Thursday at the National Guard Armory. The meeting in Kenai drew about a dozen people, some of whom chose to wait and offer their comments online through regulations.gov. The ones who did offer comments expressed concern on a wide range of issues, from industry infrastructure to wildlife.

Gary Oskolkoff, a Ninilchik resident, said he thought the proposed lease sale was “probably, for the industry, about two to three decades too early.”

“There’s just not structure involved there, things really don’t exist now,” he said. “If you go out there and do some seismic work, if you want to spend money on it and make a good find out in the middle of nowhere, well, that’s going to change your perspective, but who’s going to spend the time on it? To me, it just seems like one of those things that should be held off.”

Lauren Moss, a Soldotna resident, said the draft did not address potential conflicts with king salmon migration or for other large mammals. She said the draft also did not account for the effect of seismic survey noise on large mammals.

“Imagine taking your kids to the grocery store to get something to eat, and then someone turns the lights off and an alarm like … a hockey horn starts to go off,” Moss said. “You can’t find your kids … that’s essentially what this is like for these whales. They use sound to see.”

Most of the written comments submitted online also oppose the sale. Many of the commenters referenced the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, which shut down the drift gillnet fishery because of the oil in the water and left deposits of oil on the beaches as well as on wildlife. Some expressed concern that more industry activity in the area would be a stress for marine wildlife already under stress with changing ocean conditions.

Local conservation organization Cook Inletkeeper wrote during the initial scoping in 2014 that it would oppose any lease sales because of the risk to habitat.

“This region supports vital salmon, halibut and other fisheries resources, which in turn support over a billion dollars a year in economic activity,” wrote Cook Inletkeeper Executive Director Bob Shavelson.

Earlier in the process, the Marine Mammal Commission, a federal agency, opposed the lease sale on the grounds of risk to the beluga whales. The National Marine Fisheries Service also expressed this concern.

“NOAA Fisheries encourages BOEM to consider mitigation strategies such as leasing deferrals in areas designated as critical habitat for the Cook Inlet beluga whale,” the agency’s letter states.

BOEM took the comments during the scoping period in 2014 into account when shaping the lease sale area, Storzer said. That is why some of the areas are excluded and why some of the alternatives are proposed, he said.

“One of the reasons we didn’t include any of (the area near Seldovia, Port Graham and Nanwalek) was because the communities had so much concern about subsistence,” he said.

After the environmental impact statement is approved, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior can choose to hold a lease sale or delay it. When BOEM originally asked the industry if there was interest in oil and gas exploration in that part of Cook Inlet, more than one company responded positively, said John Callahan, a spokesman for BOEM.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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