Environmentalists invoke belugas in effort to halt Alaska oil exploration

ANCHORAGE (Reuters) - Two environmental groups on Friday issued notice that they intend to sue the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to void a permit allowing oil exploration in waters used by endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales.

Earlier this week, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released a new population estimate showing the whales are fewer in number and declining faster than previously believed.

According to the new estimate, only 279 beluga whales remain in Cook Inlet, the NMFS said on Tuesday. The population, which was about 1,300 in 1979, and has declined at an annual rate of 2.3 percent over the past decade, more than four times as fast as previously believed, NMFS said.

“The new numbers are pretty daunting,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs suing to halt exploration planned by Hilcorp Energy Company in Cook Inlet.

“They have a duty to reconsider and to analyze if there’s new information that’s significant and indicates that the activities that they authorized would cause harm,” she said referring to the NMFS.

Hilcorp and NOAA representatives were not immediately available on Friday to comment on the environmentalists’ latest legal action.

The Trump administration last August announced it would change the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, making it harder to protect wildlife from multiple threats posed by climate change. Environmentalists say the revised rules clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live.

Cook Inlet, which supplies energy for south-central Alaska, stretches 180 miles (290 km) from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska.

The NMFS granted the exploration permit to privately held Hilcorp last year.

Cook Inlet beluga whales swim in the waters off Anchorage and other communities in Alaska’s most populous region. They eat salmon and other fish and, when they gather for feeding sessions near the shore, are popular draws for sightseeing tourists.

Their continued existence is made precarious by their proximity to Alaska’s urban core and to the industrial activities in Cook Inlet, the glacial-fed channel that drains into the Gulf of Alaska. Ongoing threats include heavy ship traffic, industrial noise, pollution and climate change, disease and natural disasters, according to NOAA.

The Cook Inlet region is Alaska’s oldest oil-producing basin, with drilling that goes back to the 1950s. Hilcorp in 2017 became the first oil company in two decades to acquire leases in federal waters of Cook. The company plans to start exploration drilling on those leases as early as February and start seismic surveys as early as April, according to a NMFS document published last year in the Federal Register.

The Trump administration plans another lease sale next year in federal waters of Cook Inlet. Simmons called the plan “alarming” and said environmentalists will fight it.

Reporting by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Sandra Maler