Friends of Animals is pushing back against the Trump administration’s unrelenting efforts to vigorously promote energy exploration projects in Alaska that endanger beluga whales, whose populations in Cook Inlet have declined so precipitously that approval of a new gas project could push them to extinction.
“It is time to end highly disruptive oil and gas exploration that is damaging our environment and killing wildlife,” said Jennifer Best, assistant legal director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program.
Cook Inlet belugas have declined from 1,300 whales in 1979 to just over 300. And while subsistence hunting that resulted in a population decline of 47 percent between 1994-1998 was stopped, belugas have struggled with low birth rates likely caused by massive amounts of noise, movement and other disturbances generated by rapid and vast development.
In comments filed this month with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on its draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Alaska LNG Project, which seeks to commercialize natural gas resources in Alaska’s North Slope by converting the natural gas supplied to liquified natural gas for users within Alaska, FoA noted that a FERC’s own biological assessment concluded that the project would increase the risk of vessel strikes on Cook Inlet beluga whales, result in underwater noise that would harass the whales and would cause the whales to lose critical habitat.
Along with belugas, Cook Inlet is home to harbor seals, harbor porpoises, killer whales as well as other marine life.
“Project construction and operation is likely to adversely affect six federally listed species (spectacled eider, polar bear, bearded seal, Cook Inlet beluga whale, humpback whale, and ringed seal) and designated critical habitat for two species (polar bear and Cook Inlet beluga whale),’’ FERC said in its June issuance of the draft EIS.
The LNG Project consists of the construction of a new gas treatment plan, a gas transmission line, an 806 mile-long pipeline, eight compressor stations, a heating station and a 20-million-metric-ton liquefaction facility.
“Because further activities in the Cook Inlet could push the beluga whales to extinction, FERC should not approve the Alaska LNG Project, or any other project impacting Cook Inlet until the government has completed an analysis of the cumulative impacts of all past, present and reasonably foreseeable future projects in the Cook Inlet,’’ FoA said in its comments.
FoA noted that a major oil spill in the area as a result of an energy project has the potential to wipe out belugas completely.
In addition to filing comments with FERC about the Alaska Liquefied Natural Gas Project, FoA filed comments this summer with the National Marine Fishers Service Office of Protected Resources objecting to its proposal to allow 20 belugas to be taken per year for the first five years of the project, for a total of 100.
“That amount of takes will still likely cause the Cook Inlet beluga whales to become extinct because the population is so fragile. Since scientists cannot pinpoint exactly why the beluga whale population is declining, it will likely continue to decline and taking 6.4 percent of the population each year will surely lead the population to extinction,’’ FoA said in comments submitted in July.
FERC is set to issue a final decision on the project in June 2020.
“This energy exploration project is an unnecessary assault on Alaska’s wildlife that is already facing so many challenges, including climate change, the very cause of which has to do with our dependence on fossil fuels,’’ said FoA President Priscilla Feral. “It’s imperative we speak out to protect belugas and the species endangered by energy interests.”