USGS asked to study Arctic oil, gas exploration impacts

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Apr. 14 -- The US Geological Survey will review information about the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, including studies by other scientific organizations, to help guide federal oil and gas policies on the Arctic Ocean’s Outer Continental Shelf, US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced on Apr. 13.

The report, which Salazar asked the agency to complete by Oct. 1, will examine effects of oil and gas exploration on marine mammals, determine what research is needed for effective and reliable oil spill responses in ice-covered regions, evaluate what is known about cumulative effects of energy extraction on ecosystems and other natural resources, and review how future climate changes may mitigate or compound Arctic energy development impacts.

Information also will be gathered as Shell Exploration Inc. drills three wells on its Beaufort and Chukchi sea leases this summer, Salazar said. “If we are to responsibly develop energy resources in frontier areas of the OCS, especially in the Arctic’s extreme environment, we must support exploration activities, gather the science needed, and listen to affected communities,” he said.

USGS scientists will review studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and similar organizations, according to Marcia K. McNutt, the agency’s director.

“They will examine and summarize what information is available about the Arctic and what knowledge gaps may exist regarding environmental sensitivities, including impending climate change, and other factors that would be considered in decisions about future development,” she said.

‘Best science’
“The thrust of this is to make sure we are using the best science as we develop our offshore oil and gas resources,” Salazar told reporters during a teleconference. “The Arctic is a place where conditions are hard and the changes, especially from climate change, are affecting the people who live there. The gathering of information by USGS between now and Oct. 1 will be very helpful as we develop the next 5-year OCS schedule. [It] will help us make sure we have the best science-based decisions available as we move forward.”

Simultaneously, the US Minerals Management Service will gather scientific information about resources, spill response capabilities, and potential impacts as it conducts environmental scoping and holds public meetings on possible additional leasing in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas under the 2012-17 OCS schedule that is being developed, Salazar said.

“We will gather information from exploration activities on existing leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, listen to the voices and views of local communities, and conduct a complete scientific, environmental, and spill risk analysis before we decide if new areas are offered for leasing,” said Alan Thornhill, who was appointed MMS’s science advisor on Mar. 24. Development of wells at the onshore Liberty project, which is expected this year, will also provide data, he added.

He noted that there are 487 Chukchi Sea leases, all issued in OCS Sale 193 in 2008, and Sale 186 in the Beaufort Sea, more than 90% of which were issued in Sale 195 in 2005 and Sale 202 in 2007. No exploration has been conducted yet on any of these leases.

Wildlife studies
MMS also is conducting numerous studies of Arctic wildlife, Thornhill said, which will including polar bears, whale, and fish. It also will carry out dozens of technical assessments of mechanical and skimming equipments and techniques to clean up spilled oil in ice-covered waters; sea ice and sea floor mapping, and wind and current research as well as meteorological and oceanic trends to identify the safest times to transport and set equipment, he said.

“This research is at the very core of what we do as a regulatory agency,” Thornhill said. “MMS, NOAA, and other agencies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars on research in the Arctic region. Beyond these environmental studies, MMS has an active program on oil spill response technology. We’re also developing operational tools to detect and map oil in any ice type.”

Salazar emphasized that it will be important for Alaskans to be involved. “We are in constant conversation with affected stakeholders there, including the state government,” he said. “We may not always agree with everything the state proposes, but we intend to work with it to make sure its voice is heard. In that regard, we announced a few weeks ago that we are working on a climate change center with the University of Alaska.”

McNutt said, “Our climate science center is a direct partnership. We also have a number of other entrees to working with the state, in particularly with the North Pacific Resource Board and the North Slope Science Initiative.”

Contact Nick Snow at

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