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Worst idea ever: Storing oil at the base of an active volcano

Bob Shavelson
Alaska Volcano Observatory photo

I’ve been watching oil and gas corporations in Cook Inlet for the past 16 years, and few things surprise me. But now Hilcorp Corporation wants to resume storing oil at the base of an active volcano on the west side of Cook Inlet.

Hilcorp is the third largest privately-held oil and gas company in the nation (“privately held” means you cannot see their books). Last year, Hilcorp bought from Chevron the major oil and gas production facilities in Cook Inlet, including facilities at Trading Bay and Drift River.

At Trading Bay, Hilcorp uses a “shower head” to disperse over 2 billion gallons of toxic oily waste into Cook Inlet fisheries and beluga whale habitat each year. In other regions, industry reinjects toxic wastes back into the formation. But it’s cheaper to embrace the idea that “dilution is the solution to pollution.” So Hilcorp uses Cook Inlet fisheries as its private dumping ground. Hilcorp’s rationale? It cannot afford not to pollute.

When the third largest private oil and gas company in the U.S. says it cannot afford to properly treat its wastes, you have to wonder how all those smaller companies in the Gulf of Mexico do it.

But the real eye-opener occurs at the Drift River Oil Terminal. There, Hilcorp gathers oil from upstream production facilities, and ships it by tanker, usually to the Tesoro refinery in Nikiski.

In one of the worst planning decisions ever made, the industry sited the Drift River Terminal at the base of an active volcano, Mount Redoubt. In 1989, when the Exxon Valdez consumed the nation’s attention, Mt. Redoubt blew ferociously. Volcanic flows inundated the facility, threatening prized fisheries with tens of millions of gallons of oil.

Mt. Redoubt lay mostly dormant until late 2008, when alert levels rose. Chevron refused to reveal how much oil it had at the facility, hiding behind “Homeland Security.” And it made no effort to move the oil to reduce the risks to Cook Inlet fisheries.

March 22, 2009: Mt. Redoubt explodes. Volcanic flows swarm the facility and Chevron finally announces six million gallons of crude remain perched above Cook Inlet fisheries. Chevron had little capacity to implement its oil spill contingency plan because it evacuated the facility. Furthermore, because industry refused to consider a volcanic eruption in its worst case spill scenario, its response capacity was roughly 4 million gallons. That left 2 million gallons of unaccounted oil hanging in the spill response ether.

Industry finally removed most of the oil, but not before putting workers in harm’s way by sending them into an active volcano zone. It then “tight-lined” the facility, to pipeline oil around the tanks and avoid the need for storage at Drift River.

But tight-lining requires more tanker trips, and tankers cost money. So to maximize its profits, Hilcorp now wants to re-open the Drift River Terminal. Yes, despite two catastrophic events, Hilcorp wants to store oil at the base of an active volcano.

Hilcorp recently called the 2009 Mt. Redoubt eruption a “non-incident,” because huge oil tanks didn’t get swept into Cook Inlet. That’s like saying a twenty car pile-up is no big deal because no one died.

One of Hilcorp’s self-proclaimed “core values” is: Integrity – Do the Right Thing. If Hilcorp has any corporate values at all, it won’t resume oil storage at the base of an active volcano, and will instead build a safer and more efficient pipeline across Cook Inlet.

So, walk your talk, Hilcorp. Do the right thing. Alaska and the world are watching.

Bob Shavelson is Executive Director of Cook Inletkeeper, a community-based nonprofit organization that relies on advocacy, outreach and research to support clean water and healthy salmon throughout the Cook Inlet watershed.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.