Agency seeks input ahead of possible Cook Inlet lease sale

ANCHORAGE — The federal agency that oversees offshore petroleum development took a step Friday toward a possible 2017 lease sale in Alaska’s Cook Inlet with the release of a draft environmental review.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will consider a handful of alternatives, including no sale or various conditions to protect wildlife, ahead of a possible lease sale in the inlet southwest of Anchorage in June.

A 45-day public comment period opens July 22 and BOEM will collect testimony on the draft environmental impact statement through Sept. 6. The agency will conduct public meetings in Anchorage, Homer and Kenai.

Cook Inlet has potential oil and gas deposits and sensitive marine resources that Alaska Natives depend on, said BOEM director Abigail Ross Hopper in the announcement.

“We look forward to discussing this draft EIS with the public and representatives from Cook Inlet communities, and getting meaningful feedback,” she said.

The sale could include 224 blocks covering 1,700 square miles from south of Kalgin Island to an area west of Seldovia. The area is near existing leases in state waters.

The draft environmental review is in two volumes covering more than 1,100 pages. It discusses sale alternatives that could reduce effects on wildlife.

Cook Inlet is home to one of five beluga whale populations and the only one that is endangered. Measures to protect the white, salmon-eating whales are included in the draft, as are measures aimed at northern sea otters.

An alternative for 105 tracts north of Anchor Point is designed to reduce interactions with commercial fishermen who use drift nets to catch salmon.

The BOEM announcement said the agency recognizes that interest in exploration and development in Cook Inlet may be limited at this time.

Attorney Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity, who last month asked federal fisheries authorities to block Cook Inlet offshore fracking because of the threat to belugas, said a lease sale would be a “mind-bogglingly irresponsible act by the federal government.”

“Oil drilling in these environmentally sensitive waters creates the risk of oil spills or chemical pollution that would harm critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales,” she said by email. “There’s also been no industry interest in several previous Cook Inlet auctions, so moving forward with this sale makes zero sense.”

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