Fired commissioner Hollis French gets hearing on 2017 Cook Inlet pipeline leak

A man in a suit talks in a room.
Former State Sen. Hollis French addresses the Alaska Senate in 2014. (Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

It’s been nearly five years since a Hilcorp pipeline off the coast of Nikiski began leaking fuel gas into Cook Inlet, a problem that lasted for months.

State regulators will now revisit the circumstances of that leak at a hearing next week. The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will hear a complaint from Hollis French, a former commissioner, after he successfully sued the agency for not taking action several years ago.

Hollis French has also served as a Democratic state senator from Anchorage. At the time of the leak, he served on the conservation commission, which is charged with preventing waste in the oil industry and protecting the environment.

French said he doesn’t think commissioners will change their minds or fine Hilcorp as a result of the hearing. But he does think setting precedent is important.

“The agency’s position on this has been extremely shortsighted,” he said. “And I’m hoping, through this presentation, to at least let the public know why I feel so strongly about this. And maybe the agency will learn something in this process.”

The pipeline in question is eight inches wide and carries gas from Nikiski to a platform in the inlet that uses it as fuel.

An aerial photo of gas bubbling up in icy water
Cook Inletkeeper filmed the gas leak from a helicopter in February 2017. At the time, Inletkeeper threatened to sue the oil and gas company. (Courtesy of Cook Inletkeeper)

The line sprung a leak late in December, 2016. The leak continued for three months until Hilcorp, which had cited danger from ice, repaired it.

Commissioners said it was up to federal regulators, not state ones, to look into the leak. Since the gas had already left the place it was produced, they said, it belonged to Hilcorp and was no longer up to them to regulate.

But French disagreed, saying that the state commission had a responsibility to investigate. After Gov. Mike Dunleavy fired French from the agency in 2019, he petitioned the commission to take a deeper look.

When the commission said no, he sued. The Supreme Court of Alaska sided with him earlier this year.

French said the commission should hold a hearing on the leak because it constitutes waste — which is the commission’s job to prevent.

“Any leak means that the gas that’s leaked is never going to be used to make electricity or heat our houses,” he said. “When gas is shooting up in the air, any person walking down the street would look at that gas and go, ‘That gas is being wasted!’”

In its decision, the Alaska Supreme Court said the commission needs to show evidence that the leak didn’t constitute waste if it’s arguing it has no jurisdiction.

Grace Salazar with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission said it has not yet heard from Hilcorp on whether it plans to attend the hearing next week. A Hilcorp spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

The hearing is virtual and open to the public. It starts at 10 a.m. next Wednesday.

Salazar said the commission cannot comment on whether it still stands by its original decision.

The ruptured Hilcorp line released an estimated 210,000 to 310,000 cubic feet of gas daily, enough to power more than 1,000 homes.

The line was first installed in 1965 and carried fuel gas made up mostly of methane. Investigators say that a rock on the ocean floor caused the 2017 leak.

But the line has a history of leaks dating back to 2014. Its most recent reported leak was last spring. Following that leak, the feds ordered Hilcorp to replace the line.

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