Federal scientists have until Oct. 1 to decide what additional research is needed to determine the effects of offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday.
Salazar said the U.S. Geological Survey will examine research already done on the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. USGS scientists then will decide what still needs to be studied to better determine the environmental effects of drilling, respond to oil spills in ice-clogged waters, and deal with challenges from the climate change that has stressed the ecology of Alaska's coastal waters.
At the same time, the Minerals Management Service plans to run its own environmental scoping and hold public meetings on potential lease sales for Arctic offshore development under the five-year leasing plan that's set to begin in 2012. Officials said the agency also is working on multiple studies of Arctic wildlife ecology, including research involving polar bears and whales.
"The Chukchi and the Beaufort seas may hold significant oil and gas reserves," Salazar said in teleconference with reporters. "We also know they hold rich fisheries, are home to wildlife, are important to Alaska Native villages and present development challenges that are unique to the harsh conditions of the Arctic. That's why we are taking an orderly, scientifically grounded approach to our decisions in the arctic area."
Tuesday's news comes nearly two weeks after Salazar and President Barack Obama announced that most lease sales planned in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas over the next two years will be canceled and no additional leases will be offered until additional scientific data is collected to consider the effects of industrialization.
Salazar said scientists also will learn from an exploratory project that could begin in coming months. Royal Dutch Shell PLC, which paid $2.1 billion for Chukchi leases in 2008, hopes to drill three exploratory wells this summer.
Environmental groups have long said basic information, from wildlife habits to navigation data, is lacking for the area. They lauded Salazar's efforts to build on the current body of science but say its pending analysis will still fall short if it doesn't get input from an independent group such as the National Research Council.
"We're just concerned that it not be only Department of Interior agency scientists that look at it," said Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. Arctic program.
In a preparatory advisory report, members of Congress recommended an independent entity conduct a scientific analysis for development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, Heiman said.
Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff, however, called the USGS an "independent science agency" within the department.
"Our reports are not reviewed by external organizations such as the National Research Council, but every one is scientifically peer reviewed by appropriate knowledgeable scientists in the specific field of study," Barkoff said in an e-mail. She said later Tuesday that it was too early to say in this case if peer reviews would come from outside government.
Stan Senner of Ocean Conservancy said he saw nothing wrong with the department conducting an internal review as long is it doesn't stop at government scientists.
"Independence is really important because otherwise it's a matter of the fox guarding the chicken coop," Senner said. "And in this case, we've got the Minerals Management Service that is the agency that promotes and regulates oil and gas leasing, and we'd rather have a completely independent body take a look at what the science is."
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