Interior Publishes Revised Draft EIS on Proposed 2022 Cook Inlet Oil and Gas Lease Sale

Jackup rig Randolph Yost
Jackup rig Randolph Yost being carried by the heavy-lift vessel Falcon in Kachemak Bay on Oct. 26, 2021. Photo courtesy of Cook Inletkeeper.

Interior Department officials have published a revised draft environmental impact statement for public comment on a proposed 2022 oil and gas lease sale on federal submerged lands in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, an area critical to commercial and subsistence seafood harvesters.

The draft EIS analyzes potential environmental impact of the proposed activity that would follow the lease sale.

The area identified for the potential sale includes 224 outer continental shelf blocks toward the northern part of the inlet and covers about 1.09 million acres of seafloor, stretching roughly from Kalgin Island in the north to Augustine Island in the south. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management statement said the draft EIS analyzes a range of alternatives to be considered for leasing and the leasing area’s important environmental resources and their uses, plus mitigation measures to be considered in leasing the area.

The draft EIS also provides estimates of greenhouse gas emissions and the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions for the range of alternatives, including those associated with shifts in foreign consumption.

BOEM held three virtual meetings on the matter Nov. 16-18. The 45-day public comment period ends Dec. 13.

BOEM spokesman John Callahan said the biggest changes in the draft EIS include increasing the duration of activities from 36 to 40 years, the number of offshore platforms from four to six, production wells from 48 to 81, service wells from 17 to 27, aircraft and vessel trips from 28 to 42 per week, length of oil and gas pipelines by 10 miles, production estimate of oil from 162.7 million barrels to 192.3 million barrels and production of liquid natural gas from 290.7 billion cubic feet to 301.9 billion cubic feet.

Liz Mering of the environmental entity Cook Inletkeeper in Homer, Alaska, noted that Lease Sale 258, as it is known, would take place in critical habitat in Lower Cook Inlet for endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales, near world-class protected lands including Katmai, Lake Clark and Kachemak Bay State Park, and near the highest concentration of brown bears in the world, in the same waters the federal government closed to the Pacific cod fishery, citing rising temperatures associated with climate change as the reason for low population numbers.

Lower Cook Inlet also supports important commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries, Mering said, and bear-viewing tourism that brings in $40 million in revenue annually. Mering noted the challenge California is facing to clean up after an oil spill caused by a leak from underwater pipes. Addressing such a spill or other accident in winter conditions in Lower Cook Inlet would be a much harder and more expensive proposition, she said.

In 1972, then-Alaska Gov. Bill Egan’s administration put Kachemak Bay up for oil and gas leasing, a decision challenged by fishermen and other opponents of the lease sale, who did not file litigation challenging the sale until after the state accepted $25 million from winning bidders and issued the leases. Contractors doing seismic work then used explosive charges in a crab mating area of the Bay, destroying the nursery.

Then came the George Ferris jackup rig incident.  The rig had been damaged doing work in Cook Inlet and was in the Bay for repairs in the spring of 1976, when the rig’s legs sank to the bottom of Mud Bay behind the Homer Spit. During efforts to free the legs, two of them broke, and diesel fuel spilled into the Bay.

Gov. Jay Hammond, who won election in 1974 after a campaign to buy back the Kachemak Bay oil leases, proceeded do so in the aftermath of the diesel spill.

The history of the proposed lease sale dates back to Sept. 10, 2020, when the BOEM published a notice of intent to prepare an EIS and a call for information and nomination in the Federal Register, initiating a 30-day comment period, closing on Oct. 13, 2020. A draft EID was published in the Federal Register on Jan. 15, 2021, initiating a 45-day comment period. Then on Jan. 27, President Joe Biden issued executive order 14008 on the climate crisis and, pursuant to that executive order, BOEM suspended the pre-sale process.

Louisiana, with 12 other states, challenged the Biden pause on public land and offshore drilling and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana moved to bar the Biden administration from pausing the new oil and natural gas lease process.

In June 2021, the Interior Department appealed the preliminary injunction. While the appeal is in process, BOEM is continuing the leasing process consistent with the district court’s injunction.