Ice in Cook Inlet likely to delay fix to Hilcorp gas leak for weeks

Still from footage taken by a helicopter of a gas leak in Cook Inlet, obtained by the environmental group Cook Inletkeeper. (Image courtesy Cook Inletkeeper)

Hilcorp recently informed state regulators that the company is unlikely to begin repairs on a gas leak in Cook Inlet until mid- to late March.

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That’s according to a letter the Houston-based oil-and-gas company sent Feb. 20 to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Alaska’s Energy Desk obtained the letter through a public records request.

“We all agreed that we would prefer to be able to either immediately repair the Pipeline, or, if unable to make repairs, to shut in the Pipeline if there were no adverse impacts of taking that action,” Hilcorp wrote. “Neither is possible at this time.”

Hilcorp added, “broken ice, exacerbated by high tidal flows and limited daylight” make it too dangerous to send divers to fix the leak at this time.

It’s estimated the fuel line is leaking at a rate of 210,000 to 310,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day.

The company also gave several reasons why it can’t simply shut off the gas.

Hilcorp said the fuel line used to carry crude oil, and shutting off the line could lead to an “unknown quantity” of oil escaping the line. The company added the fuel line powers its platforms, and shutting it off could endanger workers.

The letter was addressed to Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Geoff Merrell, who is leading the state’s response to the leak. He couldn’t say when the leak can be fixed, either.

“The bottom line is the pipeline will be repaired when it’s safe to repair the pipeline,” Merrell said. “When that is, nobody knows.”

The line in question leaked twice before in 2014, when it was owned by a different company, according to Merrell. But those leaks happened in the summer, and repairs were made within a few days.

Merrell said safety concerns about fixing the leak in winter are legitimate, recalling a January 2009 incident in Cook Inlet when sea ice pushed a supply boat into an oil platform and sank.

But the letter also shows Hilcorp disputing the department’s assessment of the environmental risks associated with the leak.

For example, Hilcorp challenges the agency’s evidence that methane can harm aquatic species.

“Hilcorp has their opinion and their position, which is fine, they’re entitled to that,” Merrell said. “The department has access to environmental and science experts who are arriving at a position that is different than that of Hilcorp’s, and that’s fine too.”

Cook Inlet is home to a population of beluga whales, which are listed as endangered.

Hilcorp wrote in its letter to the state that the whales are likely to steer clear of the gas bubble stream coming from the leak. The company added, “belugas tend to avoid ice-covered areas.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the opposite in a Feb. 24 letter it sent to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency overseeing the incident.

“Cook Inlet belugas have shown a preference for ice cover,” the agency wrote in the letter.

NOAA added that the leak is taking place within preferred Cook Inlet beluga winter foraging areas.

In an emailed statement, Hilcorp spokeswoman Lori Nelson said the company is working with environmental consultants, who concluded “the potential impact to marine life is minimal.”

Nelson added the company is working closely with government agencies to respond to the incident.

The long time frame for fixing the leak is drawing criticism from local environmental groups.

“Basically Hilcorp is saying ‘we cannot respond to an event in Cook Inlet in the winter,’” Bob Shavelson said. Shavelson is the advocacy director for Homer-based Cook Inletkeeper. “Our response to that is, ‘if you can’t address an event whether it’s a gas spill or an oil spill in Alaska in the winter, then you should go back to Texas, because you don’t have a right to do business here.’”

Earlier this month, Cook Inletkeeper announced it intends to sue Hilcorp over the leak, claiming it is violating of the federal Clean Water Act

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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