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Cook Inlet is a designated critical habitat for beluga whales. Photo credit: Flickr

For more than three months, an underwater pipeline has been spewing hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of processed natural gas per day in Alaska's Cook Inlet, possibly threatening critically endangered beluga whales, fish and other wildlife.

The 8-inch pipeline, owned and operated by Hilcorp Alaska, is leaking more than 210,000 cubic feet of gas per day. The gas is 99 percent methane and provides fuel for four platforms in Cook Inlet.

A notice from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) revealed that Hilcorp knew about the leak as early as December but did not report the leak until Feb. 7 after a helicopter spotted gas bubbling to the surface of the water.

PHMSA said that the natural gas discharge could pose a risk to public safety, the environment and marine mammals and has given Hilcorp until May 1 to permanently repair the line or shut it down.

But conservation groups warn that waiting until May could allow the release of another 16 million cubic feet of gas. Seven groups have submitted a letter to the Trump administration urging for an immediate shutdown of the 52-year-old pipeline.

"This dangerous leak could stop immediately if regulators did their job and shut down this rickety old pipeline," said Miyoko Sakashita, the Center for Biological Diversity oceans program director. "We're disgusted with the Trump administration's lack of concern about this ongoing disaster. Every day the leak continues, this pipeline spews more pollution into Cook Inlet and threatens endangered belugas and other wildlife."

The letter was signed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, Greenpeace and the Eyak Preservation Council.

Hilcorp contends that Cook Inlet's heavy ice cover and strong tides has made it too risky for divers to immediately fix the problem and is waiting until at least late March or April for the ice to clear.

The ice cover has also made it impossible to survey the leak's risks to environmental and wildlife. But scientists have already warned that the impact could be disastrous.

"There are three potential impacts that we worry about," Chris Sabine, a chemical oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), detailed to InsideClimate News.

First, methane exposure could be harmful to fish, potentially disturbing its main functional systems—respiration, nervous system, blood formation, enzyme activity and others. Secondly, Sabine explained that bacteria metabolizing the methane-saturated water could produce additional carbon dioxide and deplete oxygen levels in the water, creating a hypoxic zone. Lastly, this extra CO2 can cause the water to become more acidic, which can cause shells of some animals to weaken.

Sadie Wright, a NOAA marine mammals specialist, added that the hypoxic zone could impact the food supply for Cook Inlet's estimated 340 belugas.

The the noise coming from the leak could also be a "potential stressor," she said, as excessive noise can cause belugas to abandon their habitat.

"We don't have any idea how loud the leak might be," said Wright.

Not much is known about what is happening under Cook Inlet's icy waters. State regulators only issued a preliminary approval of Hilcorp's sampling and environmental monitoring plan on Tuesday.

So far, aerial surveys of the leaking gas field has not uncovered any injured birds or marine mammals, including beluga whales, state officials reported.

To slow the leak, the company lowered pressure in the affected line on March 4, estimating that leak was reduced to 210,000 to 310,000 cubic feet of gas daily. It again lowered the pressure on Monday and estimated the line is leaking 193,000 to 215,000 cubic feet daily.

As for why Hilcorp hasn't just shut down its line, the company said that an oil spill could occur because the line was once used to carry oil.

Shutting down the pipeline would risk it "taking in water, freezing and potentially rupturing," Lori Nelson, external affairs manager at Hilcorp Alaska, explained last month to Alaska Dispatch News. Nelson also said that the line needs to be kept pressurized or else it could fill with water, allowing residual crude oil to escape from what was previously used as a crude oil pipeline.

The Center for Biological Diversity has sent a notice of intent to sue Hilcorp under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Homer, Alaska nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper has sent a similar notice to sue.

"If Hilcorp cannot or will not stop polluting our public resources, then it should have no right to operate in our waters in the first place," Cook Inletkeeper executive director Bob Shavelson wrote in a blog post. "Hilcorp has put forth various excuses why it cannot shut down the leaking pipeline in Cook Inlet's icy conditions—including that water would infiltrate the gas line and other reasons—but the fact remains Hilcorp simply wants to maintain production and profits without interruption."

Alaska Conservation Voters

By Richard Mauer

For the second time in less than six months, a federal judge on Nov. 21 threw out a lawsuit by the Gov. Sean Parnell administration challenging an endangered species listing, this time involving Cook Inlet's beluga whales.

In the latest ruling, the chief judge of the Washington, D.C., District Court, Royce Lamberth, said the state failed on all its points to show that the National Marine Fisheries Service improperly designated belugas as endangered in the Cook Inlet region.

That follows a similar decision in June by another federal judge in Washington, Emmet Sullivan, who said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service properly designated polar bears as endangered. The state is appealing that decision.

Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper, one of the organizations that intervened in the beluga case in support of the federal fisheries service, said the ruling demonstrated that the state's lawsuit was "a waste of taxpayer money."

"The state would be better served paying scientists instead of lawyers and letting the scientists do science and not be handcuffed by politics," said Shavelson. He was referring in part to a Parnell administration order, issued in connection with beluga recovery efforts, that barred state scientists from publicly disagreeing with administration policy.

In a prepared statement, Alaska Attorney General John Burns expressed disappointment with the ruling.

State officials say they are concerned that recovery efforts for belugas, if too strict, could threaten oil and gas development and shipping in the Inlet. Escopeta Oil Co., which recently announced a major gas discovery in Cook Inlet, had intervened in the lawsuit on the side of the state.

"We maintain that the listing process was defective because it did not sufficiently involve the state or consider the conservation measures already in place to protect Cook Inlet belugas," Burns said. "We are reviewing the decision and considering further options."

But in his ruling, Lamberth, a Reagan appointee, took note of the state's conservation measures and rejected them as inadequate.

"Ultimately, whatever conservation efforts were already being made by the state ... clearly had not demonstrated a degree of effectiveness sufficient to alleviate concern over the small population size in Cook Inlet, since the population had shown no signs of recovery and was indeed continuing to decline," Lamberth wrote in his decision.

The failure of the state to renew its coastal management program—bills to do so died this year in the Alaska Legislature—"certainly does not help (Alaska's) argument that the (National Marine Fisheries) service somehow overlooked an important state-sponsored conservation effort," the judge wrote in his 25-page decision.

Lamberth also rejected the state's contention that its objections weren't adequately heard by the federal government.

"But the record reflects that the service held four public hearings—three in Alaska and one in Maryland—and received approximately 180,000 public comments on the proposed rule," Lamberth wrote. "In any event, plaintiffs' argument that the opportunity for public comment was somehow not 'full' borders on the absurd."

Instead, he said, the National Marine Fisheries Service "considered—and thoroughly responded to—each of Alaska's objections to the proposed rule."

While beluga populations around the Northern Hemisphere are generally healthy, the subspecies in Cook Inlet begin sliding in the 1980s, then declined dramatically from 1994 to 1998 in a "catastrophic spree of subsistence whaling," Lamberth wrote.

"Aided by modern technology, Alaska Natives decimated the beluga population in Cook Inlet, harvesting nearly half of the remaining 650 whales in only four years," Lamberth said.

New rules put a moratorium on the hunt. The federal government declined to list belugas as endangered in 2000, predicting the population would bounce back. Instead, Lamberth said, whale numbers continued to decline an average of more than 1 percent a year.

The 1973 Endangered Species Act has five criteria for determining whether a species should be listed. While any one would have been adequate, Lamberth said, Cook Inlet belugas met all five. On April 20, 2007, the fisheries service proposed listing belugas and scheduled a public comment period. It issued its final ruling Oct. 28, 2008, in the waning days of the Bush administration.

In February, the fisheries service designated more than 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet shoreline and marine area as critical habitat for belugas, leading some state officials and development advocates to complain that the local economy could be stifled. Federal officials urged more cautious reactions, saying they had no plans to turn the Inlet into an exclusive zone for whales, which in any event had coexisted with offshore oil drilling and shipping for decades.

Among a dozen parties to the lawsuit, initially brought by Alaska on June 4, 2010, were the whales themselves, represented by four attorneys from environmental organizations. Lamberth took over the case after another judge allowed the famed white whales to join the lawsuit as an intervenor defendant. He described that status as a "noble gesture" with "no legal significance."

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