Environmental group clashes with BlueCrest on fracking

The Center for Biological Diversity is calling for the National Marine Fisheries Service to stop BlueCrest Energy’s plans to conduct hydraulic fracturing of oil wells in Cook Inlet, citing concern for beluga whales.

LGL Alaska Research Associates documented beluga whales in Cook Inlet as part of a photo identification project. The whales are listed as endangered. (Photo courtesy of LGL Alaska Research Associates)
LGL Alaska Research Associates documented beluga whales in Cook Inlet as part of a photo identification project. The whales are listed as endangered.
(Photo courtesy of LGL Alaska Research Associates)

Kristen Monsell, staff attorney, sent a letter to NMFS on June 22. She said fracking could hurt beluga habitat.

“Fracking blasts mass volumes of water mixed with toxic chemicals at incredibly high pressures, which is just very dangerous and doesn’t belong anywhere, certainly not in the habitat for one of most endangered whales in the entire world,” Monsell said.

BlueCrest, an independent energy company headquartered in Texas, said its plans to extract oil from the Cosmopolitan Unit pose no threat to whales.

“To us, as far as the fracking process is concerned, it’s all a moot point. We can’t impact the belugas in any way. It’s just not possible,” Larry Burgess said. Burgess is the health, safety and environment manager for BlueCrest.

He said he’s scratching his head over the letter, in part because NFMS has no jurisdiction over the company’s plans to use hydraulic fracturing on 10 oil wells below Cook Inlet this winter.

BlueCrest plans drilling from its pad onshore, about seven miles north of Anchor Point. The well bore would extend down and diagonally out to the wells, 3.5 miles offshore and almost a mile and a half below the inlet. Burgess said no drilling or producing activity will take place in the inlet.

“The fractures only go out about 150 to a maximum 200 feet from the pipe,” Burgess said. “And that’s as far as the frac will go. We’re almost 7,000 feet below the surface, so it’s virtually impossible for us to impact Cook Inlet at all, in any form or fashion. There’s just no way.”

BlueCrest does have a permit application pending with NMFS, called an incidental harassment authorization. It’s required for activities in marine waters that could disturb marine mammals. In it, the company outlines the mitigation measures it would undertake — including using marine mammal observers and possibly a separate vessel to keep an eye out for belugas. But the permit was for using a jack-up rig in the inlet to drill for natural gas. Given market conditions, BlueCrest has since shelved that idea.

“That’s just not on the table,” Burgess said. “We’re not doing anything offshore. NMFS has no bearing on this whatsoever.”

BlueCrest saying that it won’t be operating in Cook Inlet waters doesn’t quell Monsell’s concerns though, particularly where fracking is involved.

“The fracking component is incredibly concerning to us, given how fracking increases the risk of oil spills and increases the risk of earthquakes, which could lead to a toxic spill in Cook Inlet beluga habitat, and they’re already critically endangered and threatened by pollutants, and they need to eat fish that are also threatened by fracking chemicals,” she said.

Monsell said that some of the chemicals used in fracking fluid can be extremely toxic to marine life.

“We don’t know yet what chemicals these companies will use but we do know chemicals routinely used in off-shore fracking in other states can kill or harm a wide variety of marine species, including fish and sea otters,” Monsell said.

BlueCrest is still working on its engineering plan and hasn’t yet submitted an application to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for its proposed fracking operation. The company is required to disclose in advance a list of the chemicals it plans to use. In public presentations, Burgess has said that the fluid will be 99.5 percent water and sand. Of the 0.5 percent of chemicals, Burgess said that most are benign, with two or three being listed as toxic.

Burgess said that drilling from onshore, over a mile below the surface, poses little risk of spills. He also said that seismic activity is not a threat, since the fault line in Cook Inlet is 10 times the depth of their oil wells.

Monsell said she wants federal officials to study the potential impacts of fracking in Cook Inlet, and wants to see the practice banned immediately.

“We think fracking is inherently dangerous and does not belong in fragile marine ecosystems, and the only way to truly protect Cook Inlet belugas is to prohibit the practice altogether,” Monsell said.

Burgess said he expects a decision on the incidental harassment application within a month. At that point, it could sit on a shelf, then the garbage can, since the gas-drilling program has been suspended and the permit is only good for a year.

BlueCrest officials said they plan to drill more wells by the end of summer and hope to be fracking by the end of the year.