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NOAA declares Cook Inlet areas as critical habitats

Posted: April 10, 2011 - 9:56pm

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service is dedicating two areas covering 3,016 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat areas for the beluga whale, which NOAA states number less than 350 in Cook Inlet. This population segment was listed as endangered in October 2008.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has spoken out against this area classification, arguing against the numbers involved. She states that NOAA estimates the costs to average out to $364,000 over the next decade. However, she says an independent economic analysis for the Resource Development Council puts the costs between $39 million and $400 million per year, depending on various economic scenarios.

“I understand the Beluga habitat needs protection, but I have serious concerns with NOAA’s figures to justify it,” the senator said in a release. “The costs involved are 100 times higher than they’re estimating. Beyond their bad math, I remain extremely concerned the critical habitat designation will lead to something all too common to Alaska: more delays in permitting, construction and protracted litigation.”

The critical habitat designation coincides with a deal that has just been finalized with Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, Buccaneer Energy Limited and Ezion Holdings Limited to bring a jack-up rig into Cook Inlet.

AIDEA Spokesman Karsten Rodvik stated, “We haven’t had opportunity to review the decision in total, but we continue to move forward with the project. It is critical for Southcentral Alaska’s economy and for our future oil and gas supplies that we expeditiously and responsibly develop Cook Inlet resources. We are confident that these operations will be conducted in a safe and environmentally sound manner.”

Rodvik has said the tentative schedule is to drill the first well in late summer.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the critical habitat designations only affect activities involving federal permits, licensing or funding which may affect the habitat. NOAA states this can include construction and oil rigs.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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