Deadline nears to comment on proposed Cook Inlet sale

In public hearings in Anchorage, Homer and Kenai this past week the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management continued to gather testimony on a proposed 1.7 million acre Cook Inlet oil and gas lease sale tentatively slated for June 2017.

The 45-day period for public comment is scheduled to end on Sept. 6, but an extension has already been requested.

Industry spokesman Carl Portman of the Resource Development Council said that the RDC supports the sale as clearly in the best interest of Alaska, and that it posed new opportunities for economic development on the Kenai Peninsula.

Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, meanwhile has requested that BOEM to extend the public comment period on Lease Sale 244 for an additional 60 days.

Shavelson told BOEM regional director James Kendall on Aug. 5 that the public comment period opened on July 22, right in the middle of Cook Inlet’s commercial, sport, personal use and subsistence fisheries.

Since many of these fisheries would continue through August, the Sept. 6 deadline would not offer these fish harvesters sufficient time to read, digest and submit comments on the more than 600 pages in the draft environmental impact statement released on July 22, he said.


BOEM also significantly curtailed Alaskans’ input during the EIS scoping process for Lease Sale 244 back in November 2014, by providing local residents just a few hours notice before holding its scoping meeting in Homer, failed to provide the Native Village of Nanwalek with informational documents prior to meeting with Native elders, and held its Soldotna scoping meeting on an evening when only one member of the public attended, Shavelson said.

Cook Inletkeeper, with more than 2,500 members and supporters in Southcentral Alaska, has as its mandate the use of advocacy, education and science to protect the Cook Inlet watershed and the life it sustains.

BOEM scheduled public hearings in Anchorage Aug. 15, Homer on Aug. 17, and Kenai on Aug. 18 to gather additional comments.

Mark Storzer, regional supervisor for BOEM’s Office of Environment, said the oil and gas industry’s level of interest in the sale was hard to tell at this time.  Should BOEM decide to proceed with the sale, that intent would be announced at least 30 days in advance, he said. Meanwhile, BOEM plans to have the final EIS completed by early 2017, he said.

Portman, deputy director of the Resource Development Council, said that the area identified for that sale is close to existing leases in Cook Inlet state waters, avoids nearly all areas designated as critical habitat for beluga whale and the northern sea otter, avoids critical habitat for Steller sea lions, and excludes much of the subsistence use area for Native villages, he said.

Oil and gas development and production has coexisted with other industries, including fishing and tourism, for more than 50 years in Cook Inlet, and Alaska has shown that oil and gas development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive, Portman said. “Extensive monitoring programs and environmental studies conducted throughout the Cook Inlet basin over the last 50 years have found no evidence of adverse environmental impacts from oil and gas development,” he said. “Spill prevention and response capabilities are a major part of industry plans and operations to protect sensitive areas and the rich fishery resources of Cook Inlet,” he said.

While industry investment has slowed due to low prices, no one can accurately predict what the price of oil and gas will be when the lease sale occurs, Portman said.

If there is no interest, the federal government does not have to hold the sale, but BOEM should allow market dynamics to decide the fate of a future lease sale, which would offer new opportunities for economic development and diversification on the Kenai Peninsula, he said.

Shavelson said in email comments that while Congress charged BOEM in 2009 with promoting renewable energy development in federal waters, between three and 200 miles offshore, BOEM has done virtually nothing since in Alaska.

Shavelson urged Alaskans to press BOEM to pursue a renewable energy program for Alaska rather than spending money on fossil fuel leasing.

Shavelson noted that the proposed lease area supports valuable commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries, in addition to critical habitat for whales and other marine mammals, including the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales.

BOEM has to date analyzed six potential alternatives for the lease sale, including proceeding with the proposed action and no lease sale

Other alternatives under consideration dealing with protection of commercial fisheries, drilling discharges and protection of Beluga whales and northern sea otters, and their habitats.

One alternative would specifically prohibit lessees from conducting seismic marine or geohazard surveys during the drift-gillnetting season on 117 of the 224 Outer Continental Shelf blocks north of Anchor Point. In addition, lessees would be required to notify United Cook Inlet Drift Association of any temporary or permanent structures planned during the gillnetting season. Lessees would also be encouraged, under that alternative, to establish and maintain contact with gillnetters o avoid conflicts.