Comment period ends on proposed Cook Inlet sale

UCIDA, Cook Inletkeeper had urged for more time to allow fish harvesters to study draft EIS documents

A 45-day comment period on a proposed 1.7 million acre Cook Inlet oil and gas lease sale tentatively set for June 2017 has ended, with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management decision not to entertain a request for an extension

BOEM acknowledged on Sept. 6, when the comment period ended, that the agency had received a small number of requests to extend the comment period on the draft environmental impact statement related to Cook Inlet Oil and Gas Lease Sale 244, without saying why the agency chose not to extend the period for comment.

“These requests were carefully considered by the bureau in light of our mandate to manage the development of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf energy and mineral resources in an environmentally and economically responsible way,” BOEM said in an email response to a query.

BOEM spokesman John Callahan, in Anchorage, said it was important to note that BOEM had held two substantial comment periods related to the lease sale. The first, which ran from Oct. 23 through Dec. 8, 2014, was during the scoping period for the environmental impact statement, and included public meetings in Seldovia, Nanwalek, Homer, Soldotna and Anchorage, Callahan said.

The second comment period ran from July 22 through Sept. 6 of this year included additional meetings in Anchorage, Homer and Kenai. “In light of these opportunities for public comment, the bureau considered it in the public’s interest to move forward with the National Environmental Policy Act process as planned,” he said.

Industry spokesman Carl Portman, of the Resource Development Council, had addressed the matter at the Anchorage public comment session, telling BOEM that the RDC supports the sale as being in the best interest of Alaska. It poses new opportunities for economic development on the Kenai Peninsula, Portman said.

Michael Munger, executive director of the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, noted that BOEM had over 70 participating authors, internal reviewers, and fact checkers, some of whom worked on the six-bound draft environmental impact statement for nearly two years.

“They cite over 2,000 separate literature sources for information used to analyze risks, consequences, and effects of lease sale activities, including from ‘Very Large Oil Spills,’ and for a range of lease sale alternatives,” Munger said. “At any time, a thoughtful and thorough review of this document would be difficult, but to expect it in July and August is unreasonable,” he said.

Munger also said that BOEM was well aware that the middle of summer was the worst possible time to go out for public comment because of fisheries in progress.

“The exact people who know the most about the habitats and resources at risk are likely those who are least able to fully participate during this review process, including commercial fishermen, subsistence users and researchers,” he said.

“We are disappointed that BOEM is not ensuring that they hear from those Alaskans with the most knowledge of Cook Inlet resources and who have the most at stake.

By turning down rational requests for a reasonable extension, BOEM either does not care to receive that input or is under pressure to rush this forward on their timeline; neither of which is acceptable.”

Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, and Erik Huebsch, vice president of United Cook Inlet Drift Association, had both urged BOEM to extend the comment period, which was held while many commercial fish harvesters who live on the Kenai Peninsula were out in the peak of the salmon harvesting season.

“BOEM announced availability of the draft EIS and opened the public comment period on July 22,” Huebsch said in an Aug. 10 letter to James Kendall, regional director of BOEM in Alaska. “This date is the traditional peak of Cook Inlet’s commercial salmon fishery, which will continue into September. As a result, many of our members will not have time to read or submit comments on the 600+ page DEIS before the September 6 deadline.  The proposed lease sale area is also in the middle of the commercial drift fishing area, which cause our members a great deal of concern,” he told Kendall.

Huebsch also said that BOEM significantly curtailed Alaskans input during the EIS scoping process for lease sale 244 back in November 2014.

Boem provided local residents only a few hours’ notice before holding its scoping meeting in Homer, failed to provide the Native Village of Nanwalek with informational documents prior to meeting with Native elders, and held its Soldotna scoping meeting on a Friday evening when only one member of the public attended, he said.

Whether the lease sale will actually occur will depend on the oil and gas industry’s level of interest in the sale, according to Mark Stozer, regional supervisor for BOEM’s Office of Environment.

Shavelson noted that no bids were received and no acres leased on lease sale 219 in 2011, lease sale 211 in 2009, or lease sale 191 in 2004, and both were cancelled for lack of industry interest. The last successful sale was lease sale 149 in 1997, which brought in bids totaling $253,965 for 9,766 acres.