On the Anniversary of the Exxon Valdez, Cook Inlet Oil & Gas Shows Continued Complacency
State Well No. 1 blew-out in August 1962 and didn't stop until October 1963. Complacency has a long history in Cook Inlet.
March 24 marks 28 years since the Exxon Valdez “fetched up, ah, hard aground” on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, laying a path of destruction across Alaska’s coastal ecosystems and the countless lives they support. While Exxon officials worked hard to convince the world it spilled “only” 10.8 million gallons of crude—ostensibly to pay lower penalties—the real volume was probably at least double. Today, Exxon crude still lingers throughout the Sound’s intertidal areas.
The Alaska Oil Spill Commission and the U.S. Congress both concluded that a creeping complacency lead to the Exxon Valdez spill. Since then, oil spill prevention and response have become heightened priorities in Prince William Sound.
Cook Inlet, however, is a different story. It started in 1956, when ARCO geologist Bill Bishop famously stomped his boot into the ground near the Swanson River (in what’s now the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge), and said “drill here,” leading to the first commercial oil discovery in the state. Development soon moved offshore, with a host of platforms, pipelines and processing facilities crisscrossing Cook Inlet by the mid-1960’s.
This fast-paced development pre-dated the nation’s major environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. As a result, Cook Inlet has remained a “regulatory backwater,” where a wild west attitude toward environmental compliance remains engrained in industry practices. For example, Cook Inlet is the only coastal waterbody in the United States where the oil and gas industry legally dumps billions of gallons of toxic waste into rich fisheries each year.
Today, Cook Inlet boasts over 1000 miles of oil and gas pipelines, and 17 offshore production platforms. Remarkably, over 275 miles of pipelines are 40-50 years old or more.
So, it came as no surprise when Hilcorp finally revealed this past February that it’s gas pipeline in Cook Inlet had been leaking for months. The same pipeline leaked twice in 2014. Remarkably, Hilcorp says it cannot stop the leak until the winter ice clears, which begs the question: how can they operate in the winter in Cook Inlet if they cannot stop their leaking pipeline? (Hint: the real answer is, they CAN shut down the leaking pipeline, if they just temporarily stop pumping oil and producing profits. But that’s apparently not possible).
But assuming Hilcorp will agree eventually to stop blowing methane into our salmon and beluga whale habitat, Alaskans deserve a look at the larger picture in Cook Inlet. What’s that mean?
First, there must be a comprehensive, publicly available audit of all oil and gas pipelines around the watershed. While industry and our government agencies may have piecemeal data, reports and other information, the Alaska public deserves to see an overview of all pipelines in one place to demonstrate these lines are capable of protecting our land, air, water and fish resources. Cook Inlet fisheries alone generate a billion-dollars-a-year in economic output, which far exceeds the oil and gas industry, so why not?
Second, there must be a review of bonding amounts available for dismantling, removing and remediating (DR&R) the aging platforms and pipelines in Cook Inlet. Under state law, companies must post bonds and make other assurances they can address old infrastructure after its useful life. A 2013 study contracted by Inletkeeper found grossly inadequate bonds available to deal with Cook Inlet’s old pipelines and platforms. The corporate trend, however, is to leave everything in place, and let the taxpayer pick up the tab. A comprehensive bonding review may help correct this problem, as Alaska grabbles with a monumental and growing fiscal crisis (caused, largely, by oil and gas corporations getting too much share of the oil and gas pie).
As we recognize the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez, it’s important to never forget the hubris and complacency that lead to Alaska’s greatest social and economic disaster. At the same it, it’s important to recognize the very same hubris and complacency are lapping at our shoreline today in Cook Inlet, and to take steps to ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.