Company Behind Massive Pipeline Leak Wants To Drill In The Arctic

What could go wrong?

A massive natural gas leak from an offshore pipeline near Anchorage could continue for another month because Hilcorp Alaska says sea ice in the Cook Inlet is preventing a repair. So why would we believe that the same company can safely drill for oil in the Arctic, where the ice and ocean conditions are far more treacherous?

If this company can’t prevent or stop a gas leak in the Cook Inlet, it has no business in the Beaufort Sea. That dark, remote, forbidding Arctic Ocean region is where Hilcorp seeks to build the Liberty Project, a controversial offshore drilling structure involving a nine-acre artificial island and 5.6-mile underwater oil pipeline.

Every day about 300,000 cubic feet of natural gas from Hilcorp’s broken pipe bubbles into the water column, where it threatens endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales and their prey. The gas (mostly methane) saturates the water column and can cause a dead zone harmful to fish and other wildlife. The leak is in the critical habitat of the Cook Inlet beluga whales whose numbers have dwindled to only 340 individuals. When released into the atmosphere, methane is a potent greenhouse gas worsening climate change. Yet company officials claim they’re powerless to do anything but wait.

Hilcorp says it can’t shut down the gas leak or do anything to address the problem until late March at the earliest, when the sea ice clears enough to send divers down to fix the pipeline. Apparently, Hilcorp doesn’t have the technology or know-how to fix the pipeline given the tidal and ice conditions in the Cook Inlet.

So just imagine if this pipeline, or one carrying crude oil, was in the far north Beaufort Sea, where the sea ice only clears for a few months in late summer, if ever. The nearest Coast Guard station is 1,000 miles away — and this is in the heart of polar bear habitat.

If this company can’t prevent or stop a gas leak in the Cook Inlet, it has no business in the Beaufort Sea.

It’s about 20 degrees now in Cook Inlet, with winds under 20 knots. In the Beaufort Sea, it’s 50 degrees below zero, with 45-knot winds blowing snow and creating low visibility — and it’s dark all day long.

When Shell sought to drill in the Arctic a couple years ago, federal environmental studies showed there was a 75 percent chance of a significant oil spill that would be impossible to fully clean up. In the Beaufort Sea, ice scours can dig grooves in the sea floor and damage pipelines. How long would a damaged oil pipeline persist in the frozen Arctic Ocean?

Americans learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 how sickening it is to watch oil flow from an uncontrolled leak for months on end. BP helplessly watched its oil wreak havoc on the Gulf of Mexico during the worst spill in U.S. history. And in 2014, BP sold its Liberty lease in the Arctic to Hilcorp, which is now seeking approval from the Trump administration to build the project.

First thing first: Hilcorp needs to shut off the pipeline that’s leaking uncontrolled into Cook Inlet. But the big lesson here is that offshore oil drilling is inherently dangerous and cannot be done safely. That’s particularly true in the Arctic. So it’s unthinkable that we would give Hilcorp the chance to create another uncontrollable leak in the most pristine and unforgiving region in our country.

Alaska’s Cook Inlet is home to critically endangered beluga whales. (Credit: WikiMedia Commons)

Reprinted from Huffington Post, originally published March 2

Video courtesy of Cook InletKeeper.