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Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Feds Say the Oil and Gas Industry’s “White Whale” is Endangered

As Thanksgiving approaches, let’s all give a big helping of thanks (and an even bigger ladle of sarcasm gravy) to Sean Parnell for yet again wasting our money. Thanks, governor.

Cook Inlet has a problem. It used to have a large, healthy population of beluga whales. The population of about 1,300 animals was large enough, even, to support subsistence hunting. But back in the 80s, something started to happen. The population of these magnificent creatures began to decline.

In the early 90s, it was still possible to drive along the scenic Seward highway, south of Anchorage and spot what at first appeared to be white caps on the water, but on closer examination proved to be dozens of belugas making their merry way up, or down the Inlet. Clusters of motor homes would park at rest stops and scenic overviews and tourists and locals alike would stand, binoculars pressed to faces, smiling and gasping with delight. Whale watching from the road – it didn’t get any better than that.

~Cook Inlet beluga calf and mother [Photo from NOAA]

As the 90s wore on, these commonplace sightings grew less frequent. Between 1994 and 1998, the Native subsistence hunt took almost half the remaining population of 650 whales, and it was clear that if something didn’t change soon, the whales would be gone. The Native villages on Cook Inlet stopped the hunt altogether.

The state argued that after the hunting ceased, the whales would rebound, and everything would be fine. The last thing they wanted was for some pesky newly endangered species to halt things like the Anchorage Port expansion, or the Knik Arm Bridge, or oil and gas exploration in the Inlet.

Ten years passed, and the whales’ numbers still hovered around 400 – less than 1/3 of their population 20 years before. Clearly, there was something else going on, and stopping the hunt did not have the desired effect. The National Marine Fisheries Service declared the whales endangered.

In October of 2008, then Governor Sarah Palin decided she’d had enough of these rubbery white pains in the butt getting in the way of her “drill baby, drill” plans, and decided to do what she had already done with the polar bears – deny the facts and sue the feds. She had her very own “white whale.”

So she, and now Gov. Parnell have loosened up Alaska’s purse strings, NOT to determine what the cause of the problem is, but to litigate the belugas to death.  See, finding a solution that would return the whales to a healthy population size, and thereby make it much easier to push forward their development projects might mean inconveniencing the oil and gas industry. Shhhhhh. We don’t want to disturb them with stuff like this. The State suing the Feds on their behalf is much better for them. They like it.

Before you start thinking that this is all some great cosmic mystery and you have to have mystical whale whispering knowledge, or a PhD in some esoteric subject to figure out where to start, realize that all you have to know is this:

Cook Inlet is the only coastal waterbody in the United States where EPA allows the oil and gas industry to dump toxic drilling and production wastes into important subsistence, commercial and recreational fisheries. When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it established five-year terms for discharge permits, with the intent that technology would improve over time and pollution eventually would be eliminated. However, according to the groups who brought the challenge to the oil and gas industry permit — Cook Inletkeeper, United Cook Inlet Drift Association, Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund, the Native Village of Port Graham, and the Native Village of Nanwalek — the current permit vastly increases the amount of toxic dumping in Cook Inlet compared to the previous permit. The industry is now authorized to discharge approximately 100,000 gallons of oil and over 835,000 pounds of toxic metals each year.

Maybe it’s just me, but 835,000 pounds of toxic metals and 100,000 gallons of oil every single year being dumped into the 180-mile body of water where the whales live just might be part of the problem. It’s a wild guess.  And that’s not including accidental spills, or leaks that happen on a regular basis. So, while the people of Alaska have been paying the bill for this frivolous lawsuit, and while Sean Parnell has been sticking his fingers in his ears, the dumping continues. Since Native Villages decided to stop hunting, about 83.5 million pounds of toxic metals, and a million gallons of oil have been dumped into the whales’ habitat. And it was all perfectly legal.

Why, oh why are they not recovering? If only we knew! Nature sure is mysterious.

To no one’s surprise, a federal judge told Sean Parnell today that yes, the fact that there are only 400 whales left and there used to be 1,300, and the fact that the thing he said would bring them all back had little or no effect, means the whales are indeed endangered. And whether or not keeping them from becoming extinct hurts economic development, it doesn’t change the facts.

Alaska’s Cook Inlet beluga whales were correctly listed as endangered, a federal judge ruled Monday, rejecting a state lawsuit that claimed the listing will hurt economic development.

Judge Royce C. Lambeth of U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., said the National Marine Fisheries Service properly followed requirements of the Endangered Species Act and used the best science available in making its determination.

“When the best available science predicts that a recently enacted ban on subsistence hunting will reverse the abrupt depletion of a species, a decade without any noticeable recovery in the species population should raise a concern that the true cause of its decline has not been fully addressed,” Lambeth wrote.

Judge Lambeth noted that the state seemed to have a problem with the results, not with the process.

The state has not issued a statement yet, but Herman Melville has.

In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.

–MOBY DICK, Chapter IX

Stay tuned for the next chapter.




16 Responses to “Feds Say the Oil and Gas Industry’s “White Whale” is Endangered”
  1. E of Anc P says:

    Thank you, Judge Lambeth.

  2. Polarbear says:

    For those interested in a summary of results of studies of Cook Inlet Beluga, see:

    Impacts to belugas are tough to assess. These mammals are probably capable of some degree of reasoned choice and learned behavior about where they swim and feed. From other areas, they are known to be extremely sensitive to outboard motor noise and killer whale vocalizations.

    If I was looking for physical/chemical effects, the impacts of volcanic ash in salt-water and fresh-water runoff would have to be high on the list, due to sheer volume.

    It is possible that we might clean up Cook Inlet pollution, and the beluga still might not come back. There are plenty of good reasons to reduce pollutant discharge into Cook Inlet. We do not know whether such cleanup will bring the Beluga back.

  3. jimzmum says:

    I didn’t know much about these beauties until 1987 when our then 3 year old was given a cassette tape of Raffi’s.
    Baby Beluga filled her days. I mean FILLED HER DAYS. For weeks. All she wanted to listen to in the car was that song, much to the disgust of her 12 year old brother and 10 year old sister. I looked up those whales in our Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the big kids were fascinated. Meanwhile, our three year old went about her life singing snippets with the most definite Southern NJ accent:
    Baby beluga in the deep blue sea,
    Swim so wild and you swim so free.
    Heaven above and the sea below,
    And a little white whale on the go.

    Baby beluga, baby beluga,
    Is the water warm? Is your mama home,
    With you so happy?

    Way down yonder where the dolphins play,
    Where you dive and splash all day,
    Waves roll in and the waves roll out.
    See the water squirting out of your spout.

    Baby beluga, oh, baby beluga,
    Sing your little song, sing for all your friends.
    We like to hear you.

    When it’s dark, you’re home and fed.
    Curled up snug in your waterbed.
    Moon is shining and the stars are out.
    Good night, little whale, good night.

    Baby beluga, oh, baby beluga,
    With tomorrow’s sun, another day’s begun.
    You’ll soon be waking.

    Baby beluga in the deep blue sea,
    Swim so wild and you swim so free.
    Heaven above and the sea below,
    And a little white whale on the go.
    You’re just a little white whale on the go.

  4. Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

    A few things. While heartily favoring responsible environmental stewardship and realizing the obvious fact that the decline in the Beluga population is potentially caused by human activities as I have said before and will say again here, imprecision of language can be more counter productive than saying nothing at all. For one thing it affords the self-interested contrarians the opportunity of pointing a finger and screaming alarmist, scare tactics etc. etc. For this reason and others I disapprove of the use of terms like “toxic metals”. This is a basket term that simply sounds scarey. Which metals? In what form? Seawater contains a significant amount of “salts” of various metals quite naturally. So it is important to be able to say what forms of elements and in what quantities are allowed to be dumped as some kind of waste.

    Compounding the problem is the lack of a citation of a credible source that even defines what is meant by “toxic metals” let alone quantifies them. The EPA might have such data somewhere but what skeptic would be inclined to search out the actual substances and quantities claimed instead of simply ridiculing the claim for its generality?

    Finally toxicity is a relative thing. We are surrounded in our daily lives by plenty of things that are toxic in high enough concentrations, but are otherwise innocuous because our biochemistry is capable of processing them in small amounts without harm occuring. A good example is the nasty sounding chemical formaldehyde. Small amounts are easily metabolized but in higher concentrations it is a known carcinogen. It is also more or less ubiquitous as it forms naturally in the atmosphere. So upon examination, claims of trace amounts of formaldehyde in vaccines turn out to be more or less spurious. Having a daily glass of formalin for breakfast would probably result in serious consequences. How things are stated matters very much indeed.

    This also applies to referencing “toxic metals” without any specific bounds. Iron? Copper? Sodium?
    Gold? Barium? Selenium? Cesium? And so on.

    This is meant as advice, not criticism.

    I will go ahead and reveal my ignorance here, I am not a biologist and know so little about whales in general and Belugas in particular that I am not even sure if they are toothed whales or not but I suspect they are, and therefore prey on fish. If that is true, then there is at least a good chance that the source of whatever is causing the decline of the Beluga population is related to their food source, which might mean something like mercury accumulation in prey species. It might also be due to a decline in the population of prey species due to changes in temperature or acidity of waters. The obvious thing is we do not know why they are declining. Yes there is a good chance that increased pollution would have a deleterious effect, it can generally be considered a bad idea to add to the complexity of already complex problems by introducing new variables.

    But credibility is derived from having an accurate factual basis of knowledge, or at least an accurate awareness of what knowledge is lacking.

    I have a somewhat better but still incidental knowledge of what is involved in oil drilling operations and the only thing that I can think of that would possibly equate to nearly a million pounds of toxic metals would be discharge of drilling mud. Actually drilling mud is fairly expensive stuff and most drilling operations go to considerable trouble to keep from losing it. In its used form it is mixed with the rock fragments that it transports out of the hole – fragments of the rock through which the hole is drilled. Generally speaking rocks are not particularly toxic in and of themselves and their fragments seem very unlikely to become so. Thus we might wonder reasonably if the mud itself was a toxic
    metal. Like I just said, I am only slightly more knowledgeable of drilling operations but it is my impression that most drilling muds use the mineral barite to achieve the high densities necessary to maintain downhole pressures. It is a sulfide of the element Barium. It does not dissolve in water else it would be fairly useless for composing high density muds.

    So let’s instead look at the numbers cited and consider them in the inclusive context. Doing so caused me to notice a simple arithmetic error which should also be pointed out. I gather that it has been ten years since the cessation of hunting of Beluga. I figure that by dividing the annual limit of oil release by the number cited, 1 million gallons divided by 100,000 gallons per year is ten years.
    But ten years worth of “toxic metals” dumping at a rate of 835,000 pounds per year is only 8.35 million pounds, not 83.5 million pounds. Once again, this goes to credibility. Such a simple math error might be easily overlooked by some, but in the hands of a dedicated critic it is live ammunition.

    Converting for convenience, 835,000 lbs is roughly 379,000 kilograms, and since one liter of water is approximately equal to one kilogram that would correspond to 379,000 liters of water. How many liters of water are there in Cook Inlet? An order of magnitude estimate would be close enough. We can approximate the volume of the effluents by simply taking the cube root since a liter is 10 x 10 x 10 cm. That amounts to a volume of about 7 meters or about 8 yards on a side. Shall we look at a simple Fermi style estimate of what that implies for Cook Inlet? According to information stated here in earlier blog posts it is some 40 miles across Cook Inlet at Anchorage, east to west. That is about 64 kilometers, or the equivalent of a single such cube of “toxic metals” laid down across the inlet year by year for more than 9,000 years in a strip 7 meters wide and 7 meters deep.

    I strongly urge everyone who reads my comment here to do so carefully, and perhaps more than once. What I am saying is not necessarily what you might think at first. My point is really that it is at best not useful to make claims that can be easily refuted and at worst it just provides talking points for the people who wish to deny that anything the divine imperitive of profit directs can have negative and unforeseeable consequences. In the simplest terms it is ineffective argument and to a certain extent, betrays its own intent by revealing that the reality is not clearly understood.

    The saddest thing of all is that we are not all educated to a degree that enables us to comprehend and discriminate between spurious and valid arguments. There is nothing simple or easy about comprehending the mechanisms of nature. Nature is obscure but not malicious.

    So the upshot of this rant is this: when arguing with irrational people who hold irrational ideas and make irrational claims, it is I think, imperitive to either adhere very closely to the facts and make them plain, or go to the other extreme and make insupportable statements and cite unexamined “research” even more forcefully than the denialists. But given that the former approach is difficult but virtually undeniable, and the latter is vulnerable to the simple critique I have presented here, I think the former is the only way to go.

    Such issues generate a certain amount of emotions in normal humans. But after the mandate to not fool yourself, the single most important rule of doing science is to set aside your emotions.

    Science is not perfect or even efficient, but it is able to discern between what works, and what does not. It is perfectly reasonable for lay people who do not themselves do science to use its results to good effect, but they have a responsibility to at the very least confirm that their convictions are actually founded upon work that has been thoroughly vetted and tested.

  5. Dan Heynen says:

    Another possible factor is the fact that AWWU has permission to discharge sewage into Cook Inlet with only secondary treatment, not the usual third level of treatment that is usually required.

  6. Zyxomma says:

    Now, it’s time to get the EPA to roll back the permits, and stop this ongoing, massive pollution of the Inlet.

  7. John says:

    But see, Cook Inlet is different. The tides are so strong and fast that all the toxic waste is just flushed out. Flushed out to Homer where we fish for Halibut and Salmon and further out to the our Pacific fisheries that are declining. But toxic wastes don’t have anything to do with that either because drilling for oil is good.

    The other dirty secret is that Anchorage is also allowed to dump barely treated sewage into the whales’ habitat also too.

    • AKMuckraker says:

      The EPA has exempted AWWU from secondary and tertiary remediation. I actually did mean to mention that, and it got lost in my rant… Thanks for pointing it out.

      • Pinwheel says:

        Any one who has visited the 7 mile reef off of Key West before 1984 and can visit now will see the impact of unregulated waste discharge. I’m guessing here, but each level of government slept thru the ’80’s until 1989.

        Thank the goddesses for the US Federal Court.


      • robert king says:

        Please read Section 301h of the Clean Water Act. This allows for a waiver from secondary treatment of sewage for discharge to the marine environment. Anchorage is not the only city that has such a permit waiver, think Southern California, and P.R.

  8. Ice Gal says:

    Glad they were finally listed!

  9. Gail Zawacki says:

    It’s good to see Mudflats pulling no punches about environmental hazards. It’s not just the whales that are endangered, of course. Just as the water they inhabit is being treated like a sewer for industrial waste, so is the air we all breathe. Plants breathe it too – and they are even more sensitive to pollution than people and animals. Trees and other vegetation are in a perilous trend of die-back around the world. This is too bad, since plants are the base of the food chain. I try and try to get scientists to warn people about this existential threat, but they are either in denial, or afraid of scaring the pitchfork rabble, who are going to get rather agitated when they find out there is no more cake.

  10. Moose Pucky says:

    Sobering this:

    “…However, according to the groups who brought the challenge to the oil and gas industry permit — Cook Inletkeeper, United Cook Inlet Drift Association, Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund, the Native Village of Port Graham, and the Native Village of Nanwalek — the current permit vastly increases the amount of toxic dumping in Cook Inlet compared to the previous permit. The industry is now authorized to discharge approximately 100,000 gallons of oil and over 835,000 pounds of toxic metals each year…”

  11. juneaudream says:

    Delicious ..thank you..and for Christmas giving..why not divide up the entire ‘toxics dumps’..into parcel sizes that Herself could deal with..and maybe she could tie them with cheery ribbons n bells..n send them to all of her stragglin’ covey of believers. It might just solve ..two problems!

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