Oil Pipeline Leak In Alaska Threatens Endangered Beluga Whales

An oil leak from a pipeline in Alaska, owned by the same company who has another pipeline that has been leaking gas since December, is spilling into an Alaskan inlet that is home to endangered beluga whales.  

Hilcorp Alaska reported the leak from an offshore oil pipeline in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, south of Tyonek, on April 1. The inlet is home to a population of native belugas that has dwindled down to just 340 whales.  

“At first, I hoped that news of this latest oil leak was an April fool’s joke because it seemed like Hilcorp couldn’t spring another leak so soon,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). “We’re really worried about what this means for Cook Inlet belugas with the double whammy of an oil spill and gas leak in the same season.”

This oil leak is unrelated to Hilcorp’s other gas pipeline leak, but Alaskan officials announced that production platforms in the inlet have been temporarily shut down and the pipeline is running at a reduced pressure, Reuters reports. Hilcorp estimated that the oil spilled into the ocean accounted for less than 10 gallons. Conservationists, however, think this is a low estimate, and the damage to the environment of these threatened marine mammals is yet unknown.

The Cook Inlet beluga whale was first proposed to be protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1999. The National Marine Fisheries Service initially listed the population as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But after a 2006 citizen petition, a 2007 Fisheries Service proposal, and a 2008 lawsuit for a quick response of the Service by the CBD, the Cook Inlet beluga was finally declared endangered in 2009.

The Fisheries Service has designated 2 million acres of critical habitat for the whales, which was only finalized in 2011 after Alaska filed an ultimately unsuccessful suit to challenge the whale’s protected status. In 2013, however, the Service allowed permits to explore oil and gas exploration within the inlet, which a US district judge then ruled violated at least three federal statutes, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. 

In another turn, in January of this year, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s announced a recovery plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whale. Getting rid of sharing an inlet with oil and gas pipelines is probably a good place to start.


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