With new permit, Hilcorp can now blast seismic air guns at night

Oct 4, 2019

Environmental groups worry about how the air gun blasts will affect beluga whales and other marine mammals.
Credit Photo courtesy of LGL Alaska Research Associates

Hilcorp may now blast seismic air guns at night in lower Cook Inlet. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a modified permit Friday, allowing the company to explore for oil and gas after the sun sets.  

Two environmental organizations are asking NOAA to revoke the permit. 

Julie Simmonds, an attorney with Center for Biological Diversity, says this permit marks a significant shift--- now Hilcorp can put out more cables or lines with seismic equipment off their boats in the evening. 

“So that's the big change is that they can actually run more lines at night now through the night, whereas before they were limited to just finishing whatever line they were on when the sun set,” she said.

According to the permit regulations, if a marine mammal comes within a certain distance of the air guns, Hilcorp must stop its activity. Simmonds argues that at night, it’s difficult for Hilcorp to see if there’s marine wildlife near its vessel. She adds that the noise from the airguns can disrupt the mammals and potentially harm them. NOAA modified the permit on September 20 but didn’t announce it publicly until Friday.

“So we're quite dismayed to see that they're basically issuing a new permit that violates the federal government's own regulations and threatens to harm these beluga whales significantly because they can't be assured to be out of this zone before they start that blasting at night,” Simmonds said.

Simmonds claims this permit violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species act by disturbing endangered beluga whales in the area.

NOAA did not agree to an interview, but pointed KBBI in toward information about the modified permit.  In it, NOAA wrote that the likelihood of injury for marine wildlife is still low at night. Even though it may be more difficult to spot an animal near a boat, Hicorp must still gradually ramp up to give marine mammals time to leave the area.

NOAA also writes that it does not foresee the new regulations increasing the number of marine mammals that Hilcorp will disturb. It says that allowing Hilcorp to operate at night ultimately will cut down on the amount of time it will have to spend conducting the seismic survey. 

Hilcorp also did not respond to a request for comment.