On Friday, as divers working for the oil and gas company Hilcorp finally plugged a leak in an underwater fuel line that has been releasing large amounts of methane gas into Alaska’s Cook Inlet for the past four months, workers reported another accident in a different part of the state. A blowout had occurred at an onshore oil well operated by BP near Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope, and untold volumes of oil and gas were spewing out.
Both accidents, along with an unrelated crude oil spill from a pipeline near a Hilcorp drilling platform in the Upper Cook Inlet on April 1, come as the Trump administration and the oil and gas industry prepare to expand offshore oil and gas drilling, including in the Arctic Ocean. The expansion raises concerns about oil spills in pristine, hard-to-reach areas off the Alaskan coast. Republicans in Congress are also pushing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
“As bad as these Cook Inlet situations are, spill scenarios in the Arctic Ocean could pose even worse threats,” wrote Lois Epstein, director of the Wilderness Society’s arctic program, in a recent op-ed. “With a more remote location, long periods of floating ice, stormier weather and less shore-based infrastructure to enable a major oil-spill response, a well blowout or leaking pipeline could be extremely difficult to reach and repair.”
Oil stopped spraying from BP’s leaking well on the North Slope over the weekend, but raw natural gas was still escaping Sunday afternoon as workers searched for the source of the leak and began laying out plans to shut the well down, according to Alaska state regulators. Workers shut down the well on Monday, stopping the flow of leaking gas. An estimate of the volume of oil and gas that escaped the well has not been released.
In the Cook Inlet, where aging oil and gas infrastructure has environmentalists calling for an increase in regulatory inspections, Hilcorp’s pipeline leaked more than 200,000 cubic feet of methane gas into the water each day for several months, disturbing the habitats of sea lions and endangered beluga whales. For weeks, ice packs prevented repairs on the leaking pipe, which also leaked twice in 2014, according to local environmentalists.
Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who focuses on offshore drilling, told Truthout that Hilcorp’s gas leak in the Cook Inlet began in late December but was not detected until February 7. Monsell and other environmentalists recently submitted comments to federal regulators opposing a Hilcorp proposal to build an artificial island for oil drilling in the arctic Beaufort Sea.
“For months, Hilcorp said it couldn’t fix the leaking pipeline because of the presence of sea ice,” Monsell said in an email. “If Hilcorp couldn’t fix this leak because of sea ice, how can it possibly deal with a gas leak or oil spill in the dangerously unpredictable Arctic Ocean?”
Environmentalists have similar concerns about the rest of the oil and gas industry, and activists have rallied in opposition to offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean for years. In 2015, activists blockaded arctic drilling vessels in the ports of Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington.
Last year, President Obama used his authority under federal law to permanently protect much of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from new oil and gas exploration. Obama cited concerns about climate change and the risks of drilling in the harsh and remote Arctic, where spill-response resources are scarce. Under the former president’s order, Arctic waters were also removed from a federal five-year leasing plan for the oil industry.
Now, the Trump administration is busy reversing Obama’s efforts to scale back fossil fuels and place the industry under tougher environmental regulations. Any day now, Trump is expected to issue executive orders that would expand offshore drilling and attempt to undo Obama’s drilling bans in the Atlantic and Arctic, according to reports.
Trump’s Interior Department could expand the territory covered by the federal government’s five-year oil and gas leasing plan, but environmental groups say that any attempt to undo Obama’s order sparing much of the Arctic and Atlantic in the long term would be illegal. Industry groups are eager to challenge this analysis, and if Trump moves forward with his plans to expand offshore drilling, then the matter is bound to end up in court.
Emboldened by Trump’s election, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and other Republicans reintroduced legislation this year that would open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. Environmentalists firmly oppose the proposal, which would put pressure on lands used by native caribou, polar bears and migrating birds. Democrats introduced counter legislation that would protect 1.4 million acres of the refuge earlier this month.
Meanwhile, despite its leaks and spills in the Cook Inlet, Hilcorp is pushing the Liberty Project, a proposal to build an artificial island to support oil drilling in arctic waters six miles off of Alaska’s northern coast.
“The company’s massive delay in addressing its hazardous gas leak in Cook Inlet confirms that there’s simply no way to make the Liberty Project safe,” Monsell said. “Moreover, state regulators have repeatedly fined the company for violating safety regulations, and have concluded that ‘disregard for regulatory compliance is endemic to Hilcorp’s approach to its Alaska operations.'”
If approved, Hilcorp’s artificial island would be the first oil production project in the federally controlled waters of the Arctic Ocean, according to Monsell. The proposed project would be located in an area that is not protected by Obama’s offshore drilling ban, and Hilcorp bought the federal lease for the project from BP in 2014, so Trump would not need to reverse any Obama-era policies for the project to move forward.
“Liberty is a huge, complex project that can’t be entrusted to a company that recklessly disregards regulations,” Monsell said.