Hilcorp holds Homer meeting on seismic testing; questions and comments get heated

A public meeting last Friday night on Hilcorp Alaska LLC’s plan to start seismic testing in lower Cook Inlet moved from information to indignation as some people asked pointed questions and someone blew an air horn.

About 100 people attended the meeting at Land’s End Resort held by the oil and gas company to discuss its plan to do a seismic survey this fall in about 200-square-miles of federal waters near Homer. On Aug. 14, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced it had approved a permit for Hilcorp to do geophysical exploration of 14 federal Outer Continental Shelf leases Hilcorp acquired in 2014.

At the meeting, Hilcorp Operations Manager Mike Dunn described it as “a smaller company,” but that situation flipped on Monday when BP announced in a $5.6 billion deal it has agreed to sell its entire business in Alaska to Hilcorp, making Hilcorp the largest private oil and gas operator in the state.

“We buy older fields and kinda make them more efficient,” Dunn said last Friday.

The BOEM permit allows Hilcorp to do seismic surveying from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. The 300-foot Polarcus Alima vessel will tow an array of compressed air guns that fire air blasts through the ocean water down to the sea floor.

“The idea is to shoot seismic (air guns) and then create an image of what the subsurface looks like so we can determine if there’s oil there,” Dunn said.

Under its BOEM, National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permits, Hilcorp is allowed “incidental takes” of marine mammals and fish — that is, it can harass the animals with noise, but it cannot kill them. Dunn explained that survey ships will have observers to look for marine wildlife. If they see wildlife, the survey will stop until the animals move away. The acoustic blasts will be ramped up slowly with the idea of scaring animals away before the sound gets louder.

“It’s a burst of air pressure. That’s what it is,” Dunn said.

That’s when someone in the crowd at the meeting blew an air horn and someone else said “total b—-s—-.”

Jill Schaefer, the facilitator hired by Hilcorp to run the meeting, went into the back of the crowd to talk to some of the protesters.

“We ask you not to call b—-s—- when we are trying to present information,” she said. “… Having an air gun and interrupting does not help us give the information we want to present.”

A Homer Police officer came to the meeting shortly after that. Homer Police Lt. Ryan Browning said the officer had a discussion with a person and issued a disorderly conduct warning.

Beth Sharp, a wildlife habitat specialist with Hilcorp, said the effect on marine mammals would be like going to a loud rock concert. Hearing would be affected but there wouldn’t be any permanent damage. Hilcorp staff or contractors will do acoustic monitoring and assessing for the air guns to make sure the air guns don’t cross the threshold between having a lasting effect or causing an injury.

“This is the balance of resource development and protecting the environment,” Sharp said. “… I am confident we have the protections in place and the observers in place so we have the assurance we’re not harming marine mammals.”

When Robert Archibald, a retired mariner, asked if Hilcorp would do seismic testing all day, Sharp said yes.

“As long as we’re actively operating, we can continue into the night with the idea that anything will move,” she said.

“Will you have (wildlife) observers with X-ray vision or infrared?” asked Dave Aplin.

“Your question was pretty silly,” Sharp replied.

Another audience member pressed the question.

“What are you going to do at night? That’s what we’re asking,” said Alan Parks. “… When you say you’re not going to have an observer at night, I say that’s not cool.”

Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper said in an email that the National Marine Fisheries Service seeks comments on a request to modify a letter of authorization on the incidental takes and observing at night. For more information, visit https://www.federalregister.gov/duments/2019/08/16/2019-17634/takes-of-marine-mammals-incidental-to-specified-activities-taking-marine-mammals-incidental-to-oil.

Gregory Green, a wildlife and fisheries biologist from Bellingham, Washington, spoke at the meeting about the effects of the seismic air gun on fish species. He said impulsive noises like pile driving can be harmful with their high “pop” sounds. Air guns have a lower sound.

“It’s incapable of injuring fish,” Green said.

Fish most susceptible to harm are those with air bladders, like cod. Halibut don’t have air bladders and live at the bottom of the ocean.

“The deeper it is, the denser the water and the less impact it has,” Green said.

Air guns today also are quieter than seismic equipment used in early studies.

“I’m not saying it’s not loud, but it’s not going to kill fish,” Green said. “It will potentially disturb fish.”

He also said that humpback whales can hear air guns at distances that won’t cause them harm and will cause them to move away. Observers can see whales before they’re at a close enough distance that the sound would potentially harm them.

Local marine mammal biologist Debbie Boege-Tobin said at the meeting that species like beluga whales can hold their breath for 15 minutes. At the rate a boat moves, “They could be underwater the whole time,” she said.

While some people asked questions, others made statements. Nancy Yeaton of Nanwalek spoke of the importance of salmon and other subsistence resources to Alaska Natives of the lower Cook Inlet. She told a story about a girl who took a red salmon to her grandmother who had Alzheimer’s.

“Her eyes came to life. She knew how to cut that salmon,” Yeaton said. “… This concerns us as a collective group of people who have that one common inlet that is our home.”

One young girl, Lillianna White, talked about the world she and her future children will inherit.

“Yes, we need oil, but at the same time our world is falling apart,” she said. “After my mother, after my father, you will be gone. It will be a kids’ world. If we destroy the world, we won’t have a world to go back to.”

Another speaker, Dave Stutzer, pointed out that Hilcorp already has its permits and the people to talk to are the agencies that issue them.

“The only way we’re going to get anything to change is to talk to these agencies,” he said. “… It’s all done. You should have gone to dinner.”

For more information about Hilcorp’s permit, visit https://www.boem.gov/gg19-01.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

Nancy Yeaton of Nanwalek speaks at a Hilcorp meeting on lower Cook Inlet seismic testing on Aug. 23, 2019, at Land’s End Resort in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Nancy Yeaton of Nanwalek speaks at a Hilcorp meeting on lower Cook Inlet seismic testing on Aug. 23, 2019, at Land’s End Resort in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

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