Alaska gas pipeline leak highlights hazards of Arctic Ocean drilling

By Cook Inletkeeper 

In a preview of what could happen with offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, an underwater natural gas pipeline has been leaking in Alaska since December, and no repair is expected until late April, at the earliest. The lack of urgency to stop this leak by the federal and state governments and by industry is remarkable.

Sea ice makes conditions too dangerous for divers to reach the pipeline, which was built in Cook Inlet south of Anchorage in 1965. The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Alaska Department of Environmental Protection have not made the owner, Hillcorp Alaska, shut it down even though the federal agency found that the leak poses risks to public safety and the environment.

The pipeline supplies natural gas to multiple oil-drilling platforms in Cook Inlet. Even though it suspected a leak, Hillcorp did not report it to federal regulators until early February after a pilot flying over the site noticed the water’s surface roiling with escaping gas. When federal regulators later reviewed Hilcorp’s data, it turns out the leak likely began in December.

“It’s clear that Hilcorp was not prepared to operate in winter conditions. This is the same company that wants to build the Liberty project to produce oil in the Arctic Ocean,” said Lois Epstein, a licensed engineer and Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society.

“If they can’t handle operations in Southcentral Alaska, they should not be allowed to operate a massive oil production facility in the Arctic Ocean. Imagine an oil well blowout in winter and the industry being unable to stop it for weeks or months.”

Under authority granted by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, President Obama in December withdrew most of the Arctic Ocean from new offshore oil and gas leasing, but the Trump administration and the oil industry’s allies in Congress are expected to attempt to make more of those waters available to industry. The Hilcorp Liberty project is in the portion of the Arctic Ocean currently available for leasing.

To ensure safety, the federal government has imposed limits on boating and aviation in the area of the Cook Inlet leak. Escaping methane could kill marine life by displacing oxygen in the water, posing a threat to Cook Inlet beluga whales, which were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. Some parts of the inlet, including the area of the leak, have been designated as critical habitat for the whales.

Sea otters, some humpback whales, threatened eiders and an endangered population of Steller sea lions also call the inlet home.

“Cook Inlet is a challenging place in which to operate,” Epstein said, “but the Arctic Ocean is even more remote and stormy, with solid sea ice in winter and numerous ice floes even in summer.

“Hillcorp’s inability to repair this breach is a painful reminder of how unprepared the industry is to deal with a major oil leak in icy conditions. Government officials need to remember this ongoing release when it makes decisions on Hilcorp’s proposed Liberty project.”

Public meetings on Hilcorp’s Liberty project Environmental Impact Statement will take place later this year.