Cook Inlet oil, beluga whales are topic of NOAA and gas industry talks

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and a top Obama administration official sat down Tuesday with Cook Inlet gas and oil interests to discuss whether exploration and production could get a boost by streamlining requirements for protection of endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales.

Begich said he is trying to create an environment for increased natural gas production. He called natural gas critical to Southcentral Alaska's economic health. Utilities have said they expect a shortage by 2014.

Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the group that NOAA knows it must work with industry.

"I think there is uniform agreement that we need to get our act together and be good partners with many different entities and certainly private sector looms large among those," she told the group.

She said NOAA is the federal government's steward of the oceans and stands as the lead science agency responding to oil spills at sea.

NOAA intends to use sound science in its decisions on resource development, Lubchenco said, a vision that developers applauded.

Before an oil or gas project in Cook Inlet can go forward, the federal agency overseeing its permits must consult with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service to assess any impact on belugas.

Projects may need to be modified, especially if they are in the more than 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet designated as critical habitat for the whales.

Some developers are worried.

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