Hilcorp will delay a planned seismic survey in Lower Cook Inlet this summer until after the peak of the summer season.
The Houston-based company had planned to conduct a 3-D seismic survey in federal waters off Homer, where it holds leases on 14 federal oil and gas lease tracts. The seismic survey would have covered eight of the lease blocks, according to a survey plan the company submitted to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
However, a number of snags held up the process. The company says the delay is in part due to holdups during the lengthy partial federal government shutdown, which spanned the new year and lasted more than a month.
Hilcorp also says it will delay its planned work until after the height of the fishing and tourist season. Those two industries are primary drivers of the economy in Homer and the surrounding area. Homer attracts tourists from all over the world each summer, many of whom come to fish for the region’s famously abundant Pacific halibut. A large commercial fleet based in Homer and the surrounding communities also fishes for halibut between March and November and for Pacific salmon during the summer season.
Hilcorp external affairs manager Lori Nelson did not give a precise date when the company plans to take up the seismic work again, but that the company understands that “the waters of Lower Cook Inlet are a shared resource.”
“We are actively engaged in discussions with our contractor to delay the survey,” she said in an email. “Our commitment to keep the community’s interests and concerns at the forefront will continue as we work to revise our schedule and work plan.”
Hilcorp Senior Vice President Dave Wilkins said in a January presentation that the company expects the seismic survey to take between 30-45 days and would survey about 175 square miles.
Unlike the upper part of Cook Inlet, Lower Cook Inlet has seen little to no oil and gas exploration in the last few decades. When Hilcorp bought its 14 lease tracts for approximately $3.03 million in 2017, it was the first time a federal oil and gas lease sale had attracted industry interest in the area since 2008.
According to the survey plan submitted to BOEM, Hilcorp planned to contract with United Arab Emirates-based Polarcus and survey 24 hours per day with three- to five-hour data acquisition periods and 1.5-hour turning periods before performing another pass. The survey would be shot parallel with Cook Inlet shorelines in a north-south orientation with a total of 14 airguns.
In addition to concerns about fisheries, Lower Cook Inlet is also home to a large population of northern sea otters and an endangered population of beluga whales, among other marine mammals and fish. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently collecting comments for a permit for incidental take of northern sea otters over a five-year period. The company applied for the permit in May 2018, according to the federal register, though the notice was not published until nearly a year later on March 19. The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting comments until April 18.
Cook Inlet beluga whales mostly spend their summer in Upper Cook Inlet, away from the proposed seismic survey area, according to Hilcorp’s survey plan. National Marine Fisheries Service surveys have shown that most of the whales spend their time near the Kenai River and further north in the summer. During an Apache seismic test in Redoubt Bay in 2011, 33 beluga whales were sighted during the work, according to the plan.
In its initial plan, the company noted that the survey would be finished before the Lower Cook Inlet commercial salmon gillnet season opened in early June and that any effects would likely be temporary.
“It is likely that commercial fisheries, charters and individual sport fishers would be able to use alternative fishing grounds,” the plan states. “Overall, impacts to fish harvests are expected to be minor, and limited to the immediate area of the surveys and to the hours of survey operations.”
Hilcorp was scheduled to hold a public meeting in Homer last week but cancelled it. Bob Shavelson, a longtime environmental activist and the advocacy director for environmental nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper, said the company has not been very open with the community.
“They’ve been very poor with their communications, especially with the commercial fishing fleet in Cook Inlet,” he said. “This is the first foray in probably 40 years in Lower Cook Inlet. If they hit reserves … you’re talking about the industrialization of Lower Cook Inlet.”
Shavelson said Cook Inletkeeper may become increasingly involved with the proposed seismic survey in the future, as Hilcorp works to reschedule it.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.