SOLDOTNA - The state Department of Natural Resources must conduct a thorough study of the effects of oil and gas development on beluga whales before leasing 500,000 acres of key whale habitat in Cook Inlet, an Anchorage judge has ordered.
Judge Sigurd Murphy said the state didn't do its homework on beluga whales before offering its first-ever Cook Inlet areawide oil and gas lease sale in 1999.
Inlet belugas have been listed as ``depleted'' under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The population has fallen from 1,000 to roughly 350 in recent years, a decline largely blamed on overhunting.
Murphy said the state didn't have enough data to back up its conclusion that oil and gas exploration wouldn't significantly affect beluga whales, and it erred when it dismissed the opinion of agencies specializing in marine mammal protection.
Murphy's ruling late last month came on a lawsuit filed against the 1999 lease sale by a six environmental groups.
The judge agreed with the state on a number of issues related to the lease sale, but sided with the environmental groups that the state did not examine the potential harm to the whales from seismic testing, drilling and shipping and oil spills.
The state plans to go ahead with its second Cook Inlet areawide lease sale on Wednesday, minus the beluga habitat, said Jim Hansen, the state's lease sale manager.
Areas offlimits include much of Turnagain and Knik arms, as well as the river mouths of some of the inlet's major salmon streams. Belugas congregate near river mouths to feed on returning fish, biologists say.
In 1999, the Inlet lease sale offered more than 800 tracts in a 4.2 million-acre region. The state collected $2.4 million after companies bid on 51 of the tracts.