Offshore fracking threatens beluga whales, group claims

A pod of Beluga whales. PHOTO COURTESY NATIONAL MARINE FISHERIES SERVICE.
A pod of Beluga whales. Photo courtesy NMFS.

Conservation advocates question plan for expanded fracking in Alaska’s Cook Inlet

Staff Report

Environmental advocates are warning that a plan to expand offshore fracking in Alaska’s Cook Inlet threatens a local population of beluga whales, considered to be among the most endangered whales in the world.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, Blue Crest Energy wants to drill multiple new wells and conduct the first large, multistage offshore fracking ever done in the environmentally sensitive inlet. The privately held company needs a permit from the NMFS to start the fracking in the inlet.

In a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the advocacy group said the toxic chemicals used in fracking present a direct threat to the whales.

“Cook Inlet belugas already face a barrage of man-made hazards threatening their survival — the last thing they need is offshore fracking,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the group. “If federal officials are truly committed to saving these incredible animals, they need to step in and prohibit oil companies from fracking Cook Inlet.”

Offshore fracking blasts vast volumes of water mixed with toxic chemicals beneath the seafloor at pressures high enough to fracture rocks and release oil and gas. The practice increases environmental damages beyond those of conventional oil drilling by increasing pollution and the risks of oil spills and earthquakes.

Cook Inlet belugas are especially vulnerable to these threats through direct exposure and through the killing or harming of their prey, the Center for Biological Diversity wrote in its letter to the NMFS. So far there have been only a few small, fracture stimulations in the Inlet; fracking using horizontal drilling has never before been used there.

The letter urged the Fisheries Service to conduct a thorough review of the environmental impacts of offshore fracking and its effect on the survival and recovery of Cook Inlet belugas. It argued that such review should lead to a decision to forbid the company from using fracking during its operations in the Inlet.

“The only way to truly protect Cook Inlet belugas from the risks of offshore fracking is to prohibit this toxic technique,” Monsell said. “Fracking is inherently dangerous and has no place in the Inlet or other fragile ocean ecosystems.”

At least 10 fracking chemicals routinely used in offshore fracking in other states could kill or harm a broad variety of marine species, including sea otters and fish, independent scientists have found. Other scientists have identified some common fracking chemicals to be among the most toxic in the world to marine animals.

Of the five genetically unique beluga populations in Alaska, Cook Inlet belugas number the fewest. The species is under great duress from the industrialization of their habitat near Anchorage. In recent years the population has plummeted from approximately 1,300 to just over 300 whales.

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