Environmentalists in Alaska and beyond pointed to the oil and gas industry's lack of interest in a Friday lease sale for nearly a million acres of seafloor as the latest evidence that the U.S. must move beyond fossil fuels and protect the Cook Inlet.
The U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced that Hilcorp Alaska LLC submitted the sole bid, offering $63,983 for one of the 93 available blocks. That lease may be granted after a 90-day review process.
"The result should stiffen Interior's spine to stop leasing our public lands for fossil fuel and instead align their management with the urgent need to combat climate change."
The Interior Department had initially canceled the lease sale in May, citing lack of industry interest, but was ultimately required to hold it before the end of the year by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which President Joe Biden signed into law in August.
While the IRA included about $369 billion in "energy security and climate change" investments, campaigners had blasted concessions including the lease sale requirement, with Siqiniq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, saying at the time: "This new bill is genocide, there is no other way to put it. This is a life-or-death situation and the longer we act as though the world isn't on fire around us, the worse our burns will be. Biden has the power to prevent this, to mitigate the damage."
Campaigners on Friday also took aim at the administration, while pledging to continue their fight to protect the region.
"This damaging sale never should have happened in the first place, and we'll continue challenging it in court and fighting to preserve beautiful Cook Inlet," said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. "We urge Biden not to issue any leases without meaningful consideration of drilling's threats to local communities and wildlife like the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales, as he's required to do by federal law."
The center joined with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Earthjustice—which represents Cook Inletkeeper, Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, and Alaska Community Action on Toxics—in filing a lawsuit last week over what was then the planned lease sale.
"Lease sale 258 was a flop," Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe said Friday. "The result should stiffen Interior's spine to stop leasing our public lands for fossil fuel and instead align their management with the urgent need to combat climate change."
"We urge Interior to start by exercising its discretion not to issue a lease to Hilcorp, the sole bidder on the lease," he added. "It is a troubled operator with a long history of violations, the lease on which it bid is in important habitat for endangered belugas, and there should be no more oil leasing in the Inlet for Hilcorp or any other company."
The NRDC's Julia Forgie also highlighted Hilcorp's "record of safety violations and spills," and argued that industry's "lackluster" response to the sale "made clear that there's no need to lease this vibrant ocean ecosystem for oil production."
As Reutersreported Friday:
The federal government has held several oil and gas lease sales in the Cook Inlet since the 1970s, but no production has occurred in federal waters there to date. There are 14 active federal leases in Cook Inlet, all of which were purchased by Houston-based Hilcorp at the last federal auction in the region in 2017.
Operating oil and gas platforms in the area are all in state waters, but oil production has declined substantially since peaking in the 1970s.
"The 1970s heyday of Cook Inlet oil and gas development is long behind us as illustrated, once again, with today's lackluster showing," declared Nicole Whittington-Evans, director of Defenders of Wildlife's Alaska Program. "Policy for Cook Inlet waters needs to keep pace with modern reality and focus on addressing the biodiversity and climate crises we face."
"The federal government must take aggressive measures to reduce disturbances and restore critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales, which have declined by 75%," Whittington-Evans asserted. "And it must pivot to clean energy technologies and stop trying to double down on fossil fuel projects that undermine our climate goals."
Other Alaskans similarly called for moving on from planet-heating extraction efforts in the region—echoing increasingly urgent warnings from scientists who say humanity must keep fossil fuels in the ground.
"Local opposition to Lease Sale 258 and new drilling activity remains strong," Sue Mauger of Cook Inletkeeper said Friday. "Today's outcome reinforces that fossil fuel development in Cook Inlet is no longer a sound investment. Alaskans know our climate crisis is no joke and are ready to move beyond the fossil fuel era and those who prioritize economic profits over livable communities. We won't give up trying to protect Cook Inlet from carbon pollution, oil spill risks, and shortsighted thinking."
Roberta Highland, president of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, stressed that "they call these offshore oil leases but, for us in Kachemak Bay, these waters are neither out of sight nor out of mind."
"New drilling in Lower Cook Inlet," she warned, "will dramatically change our lives, our local economy, and subsistence cultures."