U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and a top Obama administration official sat down Tuesday with Cook Inlet gas and oil interests to discuss whether exploration and production could get a boost by streamlining requirements for protection of endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales.
Begich said he is trying to create an environment for increased natural gas production. He called natural gas critical to Southcentral Alaska's economic health. Utilities have said they expect a shortage by 2014.
Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the group that NOAA knows it must work with industry.
"I think there is uniform agreement that we need to get our act together and be good partners with many different entities and certainly private sector looms large among those," she told the group.
She said NOAA is the federal government's steward of the oceans and stands as the lead science agency responding to oil spills at sea.
NOAA intends to use sound science in its decisions on resource development, Lubchenco said, a vision that developers applauded.
Before an oil or gas project in Cook Inlet can go forward, the federal agency overseeing its permits must consult with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service to assess any impact on belugas.
Projects may need to be modified, especially if they are in the more than 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet designated as critical habitat for the whales.
Some developers are worried.
"The impacts on the industries are going to be profound, yet those industries did not lead to the decline," Jason Brune, formerly the executive director of the Resource Development Council and now with mining giant Anglo American, told Lubchenco. That's frustrating, he said.
The only known cause for the drop in the beluga population was overhunting in the 1990s by Alaska Natives, who sought the whales as a traditional, subsistence food, federal biologists have said.
One specific concern, Brune said later, centers on a prohibition against the discharge of fluids from the deep, specifically water separated from oil and treated, within or near critical habitat for belugas.
"The question comes up, how do we get that additional oil and gas exploration and development to happen?" Brune asked Lubchenco. "Let's face it, discharges do have to happen."
He said even if projects go forward, explorers and producers will be concerned about being hit by lawsuits.
Developers have spent $10 million in the last decade studying belugas and want to protect them, but also want to see their projects go through, he said.
When Escopeta Oil Co., a Houston-based independent, sought a permit to place its exploration jack-up rig in Cook Inlet, the project was analyzed for any impact to belugas, one official said after the meeting. The company was allowed to put it in place with no additional requirements, said Kaja Brix, Juneau-based assistant administrator over protected resources for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Steve Sutherlin, strategic officer for Escopeta, told Lubchenco the company will monitor the belugas closely and provide to NOAA and its fisheries service detailed reports on any sightings, including what the belugas were doing, what direction they were headed in and how they reacted to the encounter with the company's boats or aircraft.
If whales get too close to the drilling area during the rig's operation, the crew must suspend drilling until the whales leave, federal officials said. Sutherlin said they may be able to slow their work, lowering the decibel level so that it doesn't harass belugas.
Also on Tuesday, representatives of Shell, Conoco Phillips and Statoil signed an agreement with NOAA to share scientific information from research in Arctic waters. Data on ocean currents, for instance, will be shared, Shell Alaska vice president Peter Slaiby said.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER