Hilcorp reports another leak in Cook Inlet; this time it’s oil

Glacial erratics protrude from the water near Bruce Platform, near Granite Point in Cook Inlet. (Creative Commons photo courtesy Ground Truth Trekking)

Updated at 8:49 p.m. Sunday, April 2

The dominant oil and gas producer in Cook Inlet has shut down production at two of its platforms after discovering an oil spill.

Hilcorp reported the spill to the state at noon on Saturday after employees on the company’s Anna platform felt an impact. When they looked over the side of the platform to see what was going on, workers saw bubbles near one of the platform legs and saw a sheen on the water.

Kristin Ryan is director of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Spill Prevention and Response.

“And at that time, they shut the wells in on both platforms to stop the flow of oil and reduced the pressure in the line,” said Kristin Ryan, director of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Spill Prevention and Response.

Ryan said the company flew over the area and saw six sheens in the water.  One had migrated more than three miles from the Anna platform.

The spill is about 45 miles southwest of Anchorage, near the native village of Tyonek. It’s coming from an underwater pipeline that was carrying about 19,000 gallons of crude when the leak was discovered. The state doesn’t have an estimate for how much oil has spilled into the Inlet.

Hilcorp shut down oil production on its Anna and Bruce platforms; the two are connected by the pipeline. And, it’s also called its spill response contractor for help.

According to a state situation report, the oil spill response vessel Perseverance got to the platform about two hours after the company discovered the spill on Saturday.

The company is attempting to send a mobile, mechanical foam pig down the line.

“[It is] sort of like a squeegee that is going to push the oil through the line, past the point we believe the leak is occurring,” Ryan said. “And at that point, the leak would cease completely”

Ryan said the pig has made it past the spot where the company thinks the leak is coming from and is pushing the remaining oil into a holding tank on the Bruce platform.  From there, the company can estimate the amount of oil it recovered and tell state regulators just how much ended up in the water.

The oil spill is another blow for the Houston-based company that just last week agreed to shut down oil production on two other platforms in Cook Inlet to slow a leak from an underwater natural gas line. The company has delayed repairing that line, saying the sea ice is too thick to safely send divers down to fix the leak.

And that sea ice, and Cook Inlet weather, is going to be a problem in repairing the oil pipeline as well.

Ryan said the state wasn’t able to get an inspector out to the platform until mid-morning Sunday because the flight was weathered-in. And Cook Inlet’s powerful tides are carrying a lot of wide sheets of sea ice right now.

“So it’s big, flat, kind of pancake-looking ice and it’s just moved very easily,” Ryan said. “It’s just floating on the surface and the currents move it around very quickly.”

The company told the state that it has hired a diving contractor to investigate the line and repair it, but that isn’t expected to happen until later in the week.

Hilcorp has had a troubled history in Alaska with dozens of regulatory enforcement actions with various state agencies.

But, Ryan said that having multiple leaking lines in Cook Inlet could be a byproduct of the company’s business model, not necessarily an indicator that they’re operating irresponsibly.

“Hilcorp owns a lot of infrastructure that’s old. That is part of their business model,” Ryan said. “They come in and they purchase old infrastructure and they keep it working. So it’s not completely surprising that they’ve had more failures than other operators.”

Ryan said the company has been responsive to her department when it comes to fixing those issues.

Lori Nelson, a Hilcorp spokesperson, said the company is too busy responding to the spill to answer questions about the incident.

The company’s leaking gas pipeline and the oil spill are drawing concern from environmental groups and state and federal agencies.

One environmental group, Cook Inletkeeper, sent notice to Hilcorp in mid-February, telling the company that the group would sue under the federal Clean Water Act. Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper said the group was planning to fly over the site of the newest spill on Sunday, to assess the magnitude of the problem. He said the company should shut down and inspect all of its Cook Inlet infrastructure.

“I think we have a systemic problem across Cook Inlet,” Shavelson said. “You’ve got these antiquated pipelines and you’ve got an operator here that routinely cuts corners and that’s a recipe for problems down the road.”

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker met privately with the company last week to talk about its ongoing natural gas leak and Hilcorp agreed to shut down production on the two oil platforms powered by that line.

On Sunday, Walker’s office issued a press release saying the governor is deeply concerned about the potential impact on Cook Inlet’s wildlife.

There are dozens of species of fish, birds and marine mammals likely to be in that area of the Inlet this time of year, including endangered beluga whales, Steller sea lions and humpback whales.

State and federal fish and wildlife experts are monitoring the spill. Kristin Ryan said there have been no animals observed in the areas where the oil sheens were spotted.

Original story | Posted 11:18 a.m. Sunday, April 2

The dominant oil and gas producer in Cook Inlet has shut down production at two of its platforms after discovering an oil spill.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said Hilcorp Alaska reported the spill at noon on Saturday (April 1), after employees on the company’s Anna Platform felt an impact. When they looked over the side of the platform to see what was going on, workers saw bubbles near one of the platform legs and saw a sheen on the water.

According to a DEC report, the company flew over the area and saw six more sheens, including one that was more than 3.5 miles south of the platform. The spill is on the west side of Cook Inlet, just south of the native village of Tyonek, near Granite Point.

The oil is leaking from an underwater pipeline that’s about 75 feet below the surface of Cook Inlet.  It’s not clear how much crude is spilling into the inlet, but the 8-inch line was at full capacity at the time of the leak. It’s carrying more than 19,000 gallons of crude.

The company lowered the pressure in the line and shut down production at its Anna and Bruce platforms; the two are connected by the pipeline. It also called for help. The oil spill response vessel Perseverance got to the platform at about 12:45 p.m. on Saturday, according to the DEC report.  And the company has hired a diving contractor to repair the line, they anticipate that work could be done later in the week, according to the DEC report.

Hilcorp, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Environmental Conservation have set up a command post in Nikiski to respond to the spill. There are dozens of species of fish, birds and marine mammals likely to be in that area of Cook Inlet this time of year, including endangered beluga whales, Steller sea lions and humpback whales.

It’s another blow for the company that just last week agreed to shut down oil production on two other platforms in Cook Inlet to slow a leak from an underwater natural gas line. The company has delayed repairing that line, saying the sea ice is too thick to safely send divers down to fix the leak.

The two spills are unrelated.

This story is developing. Check back frequently for new information.