Alaska — An eight-inch pipeline in Alaska’s Cook Inlet has been belching up to 310,000 cubic feet of methane into the ocean each day, for more than three months — but it could be May before anyone can shut it down.
In December, Hilcorp Alaska's pipeline ruptured and began spewing an enormous quantity of methane into the ocean — but the leak went unreported to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration until a helicopter pilot spotted frothing and bubbling at the surface on February 7.
“PHMSA said that the natural gas discharge could pose a risk to public safety, the environment and marine mammals and has given Hilcorp until May 1 to permanently repair the line or shut it down,”EcoWatchreports.
By May, another 16 million gallons of the environmentally-deleterious gas could empty into the sea, conservation groups admonished — several of which submitted a letter exhorting the Trump administration for an immediate shutdown.
“This dangerous leak could stop immediately if regulators did their job and shut down this rickety old pipeline,”asserted Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, on the crippled 52-year-old structure. “We’re disgusted with the Trump administration’s lack of concern about this ongoing disaster. Every day the leak continues, this pipeline spews more pollution into Cook Inlet and threatens endangered belugas and other wildlife.”
CBD and the other groups warned a leak of methane this voluminous could create a hypoxic, or low-oxygen, zone, among other dangers — likely posing an “imminent threat” to endangered beluga whales, wildlife, and the delicate ecosystem.
As methane shoots upward from 80 feet below the surface, the primary plume remains potent while some gas diffuses into the water. Bacteria metabolize this diffuse methane using oxygen — resulting in a low oxygen content area — and produce carbon dioxide, which then also raises the acidity level of the sea.
“Those high concentrations of methane can have direct impacts on any organisms that might come in contact with water that's supersaturated with methane,” explained Chris Sabine, a chemical oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, cited byInsideClimate News.
A Russian toxicologist wrote in a 1999 book on the environmental impact of the offshore oil and gas industry that methane quickly penetrates ocean organisms and can “disturb” critical life functions — meaning the inlet’s creatures could be in serious trouble.
But no one knows for sure.
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“It's a question of how quickly the concentrations are being diluted, and at what levels will they still impact the marine ecosystems,” Sabine said. “That's where we don't know enough yet.”
Indeed, a dearth of critical information — from where, precisely, the leak is emanating and its impact on the ecosystem — remains obscured due to the heavy ice cover and rough seas also preventing crews from remedying the issue. Scientists worry this could be the making of yet another oil and gas industry catastrophe.
“It's like a perfect storm of conditions that would encourage or enhance the diffusion of the methane into the waters,” Sabine noted. “And that's a bad thing for the water and for the organisms that live in it.”
InsideClimate News reports Hilcorp Alaska maintains the pipeline cannot be shut off “without risking further environmental damage, and it won't be able to begin to fix it until the ice melts in late March or April. Ice in the inlet isn't a solid sheet, but is in large, floating chunks that are constantly moving and changing, in part due to the tides in Cook Inlet, which are among the highest in the world. The tides can be as high as 35 feet, making it too risky to send divers into the water. The delay raises concerns about long-term repercussions.”
Sea ice might also be trapping the methane below the surface, concentrating the gas with untold ramifications for the ocean and wildlife.
Notably, this pipeline — which transports gas from land to power four platforms situated in Cook Inlet — has been a thorn in Hilcorp Alaska’s side before.
“This is the third time this pipeline has sprung a leak in recent years,” the Center for Biological Diversity penned, “and the two other leaks were reported in 2014. The pipeline was built in 1965, and there are serious questions about the pipeline’s integrity given its age and Cook Inlet’s strong tides and cold waters.”
Both CBD and Cook Inletkeeper, frustrated and fearful of the ice delay, have sent Hilcorp Alaska notices of intent to sue over the presently-unstoppable leak.
“If Hilcorp cannot or will not stop polluting our public resources, then it should have no right to operate in our waters in the first place,” Cook Inletkeeper executive director Bob Shavelson stressed earlier this month. “Hilcorp has put forth various excuses why it cannot shut down the leaking pipeline in Cook Inlet's icy conditions — including that water would infiltrate the gas line and other reasons — but the fact remains Hilcorp simply wants to maintain production and profits without interruption.”
Until Hilcorp Alaska moves to shut down the pipeline or fix the raging leak, methane will continue erupting from beneath the sea unhindered — marking another reckless disaster courtesy of Big Oil’s shameless profiteering and toothless government regulatory agencies siding most often with corporations guilty of grievous errors.