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Reaction to Hilcorp gas leak ignores history

The past few weeks of media coverage regarding a natural gas leak in the Cook Inlet have at times veered toward speculation, but it is critically important to keep perspective when we consider the facts. Unfortunately, very little of the discussion has been grounded in reality or reason. Instead, individuals and organizations have taken the opportunity to spew hyperbole in an effort to instill fear and create condemnation for the oil and gas industry. Paramount to the discussion is to consider the environmental implications of the natural gas leak in Cook Inlet, and when we consider industry's commitment to safe operations, Hilcorp is on the right path.

Since Hilcorp discovered and reported the leak, the company has been working closely with environmental experts and consultants in close coordination with regulators to shut in the leak in a safe and expedient fashion. It's worth noting that the release of methane gas is not classified as a pollutant to the environment by either state or federal agencies, and given the volume of the leak, environmental experts have concluded that the potential impact to marine life is minimal.

While any unintended release is a serious matter that must and will be addressed, ongoing analysis shows that the natural gas leak does not pose a threat to the environment.

Further, the natural gas associated with this leak was never intended for consumers but, instead, transported to meet the energy needs to operate the four platforms in the Cook Inlet. No residence, business or utility is being shortchanged in their access to natural gas and Hilcorp is reliably and safely fulfilling all utility contracts.

The adherence to stringent safety protocols and regulatory oversight are integral to the industry's license to operate in Alaska. Hilcorp's recent monitoring plan submitted to the Alaska Department of Conservation is just one of many steps to ensure the safety of the environment and personnel as they remedy the natural gas leak.

Once again, keeping perspective on the size and scope of the leak is important. Hilcorp estimates that the leak emits approximately 6,250 kg/day of methane. Out of context this may seem like a high number but it is relatively little compared to the naturally occurring methane leaks that come from the estimated 150,000 natural seeps in the ground across Alaska.

In fact, a 2012 study in Nature Geoscience ("Geologic methane seeps along boundaries of Arctic permafrost thaw and melting glaciers," Walter Anthony et al.) found that 80 million kilograms of methane, or 0.08 teragrams, naturally leak from Alaska's permafrost annually, far outpacing methane leaks from anthropogenic sources like pipelines.

As most Alaskans recognize, the oil and gas industry provides many examples that demonstrate that offshore exploration and development can occur safely. To suggest otherwise in an attempt to discourage future energy projects requires one to willfully ignore history. Alaska's history of commercial oil and gas development began right in the Inlet, onshore and offshore, 60 years ago. Additionally, over 440 exploration wells have been drilled in Arctic waters, including 42 in the Alaskan Outer Continental Shelf.

Federal and local agencies have stringent regulations that govern such activities and the oil and gas industry spends considerable resources to ensure that those regulations are met and that activities are done in a safe and prudent manner.

We all know oil and natural gas production in Alaska is important to our state. Cook Inlet's natural gas heats the homes and businesses for more than half of Alaska's population, and oil production fuels the state's economy. It is important that Alaskans remain informed and engaged when evaluating the best approach to developing our state's abundant natural resources.

There are many factors to consider but it is disingenuous to overstate the severity of the leak in the Cook Inlet in an overt attempt to suggest offshore development should not continue and expand in Alaska.

Kara Moriarty is president and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

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