Trust but verify.
That’s the tack being taken by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation as it addresses an underwater leak in a natural gas pipeline operated by Hilcorp Energy Company.
The leak was spotted Feb. 7, but Hilcorp has been unable to undertake repairs due to ice conditions in Cook Inlet, and company officials don’t expect to be able to get divers to the site until later this month.
In its correspondence with the DEC, Hilcorp has cited a computer model of the leak that shows what the company calls a “relatively small impact” of the escaping natural gas. The model suggests that about 17 percent of the methane will be dissolved in the water, with the rest reaching the atmosphere. Using those calculations, the study concludes that methane concentrations in the water would be well below levels that the DEC states would be harmful to wildlife.
With its action this week, however, the DEC is requiring Hilcorp to verify those conclusions with sampling and environmental monitoring.
Should the sampling results show something different that what the computer model predicts, then DEC also is requiring to submit a plan to deactivate the line.
We hope it doesn’t come to that — Hilcorp has expressed concern for the potential impacts of that action to be worse than the leaking natural gas — but we agree that the leaking pipeline needs close monitoring to verify that the effects are what the computer model is predicting.
But we also need a better response plan should a similar situation occur in the future — and with pipelines crisscrossing Cook Inlet, many of them decades old, there are bound to be issues. Getting divers to the damaged pipeline appears to be the only way to fix this particular leak; remote-operated vehicles aren’t available and other methods won’t work. Given the fact that Cook Inlet can have heavy ice for several months out of the year, it is reasonable to require pipeline operators to have a means to access their pipelines under such conditions.
Continued exploration and production in Cook Inlet is important for a number of reasons — not only does it drive local economy, the natural gas produced keeps homes heated and the lights on across the region.
But the industry also needs to operate in an environmentally responsible manner. That means taking prudent steps to prevent a spill or leak, and having resources available to limit the impact should one occur. And if the assessment is that the impact of a leak is minimal, then be sure to closely monitor the situation so that conclusion can be verified, too.