Court rulings reopen door to Inlet oil and gas activity

Federal judges in recent weeks have reopened the door to more oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet, but the immediate impact is uncertain.

Federal Western Louisiana District Court Judge Terry Doughty granted a preliminary injunction request from Louisiana and other states including Alaska June 15 that temporarily prevents the Biden administration from “pausing” the oil and gas leasing programs for federal lands and offshore waters.

President Joe Biden in his first week in office signed an executive order that paused federal leasing across the country and in Alaska impacted a lease sale for the federal waters of Cook Inlet scheduled for sometime this year.

Doughty’s injunction is likely to hold until the case is settled. The states largely argue Biden’s executive order is arbitrary and is costing them potential revenue from oil and gas exploration and production.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy lauded the ruling in a statement from his office, calling it “stunning that a federal judge has to tell the president of the United States to stop trying to illegally shut down environmentally sound oil and gas development and good paying jobs for Americans and Alaskans.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a statement to the Journal urged the state or other stakeholders to sue the Biden administration over the June 1 announcement that Interior Department officials would suspend the leasing program for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In Alaska U.S. District Court, Judge Sharon Gleason issued an order May 27 outlining a path for Hilcorp Energy to explore the 76,000 acres it acquired in 14 leases during the 2017 federal Cook Inlet lease sale, the first of its kind since 2008, and conduct other activities in the Inlet over a five-year period.

Hilcorp was the only bidder in the sale, which netted just more than $3 million.

Gleason ordered portions of the marine mammal permits and environmental review findings by the National Marine Fisheries Service for Hilcorp’s seismic exploration program vacated and remanded the permits and environmental assessments back to the agency for revision.

Cook Inletkeeper and the Center for Biological Diversity sued NMFS in 2019, arguing the marine mammal incidental take permits and finding of no significant impact for the seismic work severely discounted the impact the blasting and tug activity associated with exploration and decommissioning offshore wells could have on Cook Inlet’s endangered beluga whale population and other marine life.

Gleason vacated some portions of the environmental permits related to tug activity but did not give NMFS officials a deadline to have the subsequent permit revisions complete as Hilcorp requested in court filings.

A Hilcorp spokesman declined to comment but the company has not appealed Gleason’s ruling.

Cook Inletkeeper Advocacy Director Bob Shavelson said the Homer-based environmental advocacy group also does not plan to appeal.

“It’s nice the court found the deficiencies (in the permits) but they’re mostly technical and they can probably fix them,” Shavelson said.

He insisted the primary issue is the legal requirements aren’t sufficient to protect, in this instance, marine life.

“The policy is not in line with the science,” he said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

06/23/2021 - 10:16am