It’s sad to see natural gas bubbling out of Cook Inlet and into the water column and the atmosphere from a pipeline leak expected to continue for another month or more. Offshore drilling is inherently dangerous, and while views may differ about whether it’s worth it, everyone agrees that it should be done as safely as possible.
That’s why the actions, attitude, and ambitions of this pipeline operator, Hilcorp Alaska LLC, should concern all Alaskans. Since arriving in Alaska in 2011, Hilcorp has shown a worrisome disregard for safety and regulatory compliance, racking up more fines than any other independent fossil fuel producer in the state.
This company is seeking to build the controversial and complex Liberty project in the Beaufort Sea, after buying BP’s lease a few years ago. The Arctic drilling project, now being studied by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, would involve construction of a nine-acre artificial island and a 5.6-mile underwater pipeline.
As a Native Alaskan, a fisherman, and a conservationist who witnessed and is still living through the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster, I am horrified at the possibility of Hilcorp building this project in the heart of polar bear critical habitat and being trusted to properly maintain it in those treacherous Arctic waters for decades.
Yet even if you’re someone more inclined to say “drill, baby, drill,” Hilcorp’s rusty pipeline and poor record should concern you.
As Alaska Public Radio reported last year (“As new companies enter Alaska oil fields, violations spike”), the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission proposed a record $1.7 million in fines in 2015. More than $1 million of those proposed fines were for Hilcorp, with regulators writing that “disregard for regulatory compliance is endemic to Hilcorp’s approach.”
The company’s broken Cook Inlet pipeline is merely the latest in a series of safety lapses. Last year, the company received warning letters from federal regulators about its poor gas pipeline maintenance, and it continued to pile up the fines from AOGCC.
“Hilcorp’s history of noncompliance and its failure to take the rudimentary measure of entering AOGCC’s requirements in its regulatory tracking system preclude any claim that Hilcorp has acted in good faith,” regulators wrote in December 2016 when they fined the company $30,000 for failing to calibrate its gas meters or turn in required reports over a period of more than two years.
Seven months earlier, AOGCC fined Hilcorp $20,000 for failing to test crucial blowout-prevention devices, again writing that “disregard for regulatory compliance is endemic to Hilcorp’s approach to its Alaska operations.”
So now natural gas bubbles uncontrolled from its broken pipeline, estimated up to 310,000 cubic feet per day, until the sea ice clears enough for divers to repair it. That’s bad enough. But if Alaskans and regulators don’t see this as a warning sign and deny scofflaw oil companies the chance to pursue bigger, riskier projects, then we may all find out just how much worse it can get – for the environment and the oil industry.
Native Alaskan Dune Lankard is a fisherman, tribal leader and senior Alaska Representative for the Center for Biological Diversity