Saying the nation needs sound scientific information to develop energy resources in the right places and the right ways, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced the Department's strategy for gathering environmental, ecological and technical information to inform decisions on oil and gas development in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in the Arctic Ocean.
"If we are to responsibly develop energy resources in frontier areas of the Outer Continental Shelf, especially in the Arctic's extreme environment, we must support exploration activities, gather the science needed and listen to affected communities," Secretary Salazar said. "The studies that USGS and MMS are undertaking and the exploration wells that could be drilled as early as this summer will help us better understand the resources and challenges in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, so that we can make wise decisions about potential resource exploration and extraction activities."
At the request of Secretary Salazar, USGS scientists will, by October 1, complete a special review of information that is known about the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea, including studies conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation and other science organizations. Specifically, the report will examine the effects of exploration activities on marine mammals; determine what research is needed for an effective and reliable oil spill response in ice-covered regions; evaluate what is known about the cumulative effects of energy extraction on ecosystems and other resources of interest; and review how future changes in climate conditions may either mitigate or compound the impacts from Arctic energy development.
"As part of the Administration's commitment to ensuring that offshore oil and gas decisions are based on science and sound information, the U.S. Geological Survey 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 potential future development in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas," said USGS Director Marcia McNutt.
In addition to the measures USGS is taking to enhance the understanding of resources and challenges to development in the Arctic Ocean, Interior has permitted exploration on existing leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The three exploration wells that could be drilled as early as this summer will help develop critical information about potential future development in the Arctic.
Concurrently, the Minerals Management Service will conduct environmental scoping and hold public meetings on potential additional leasing in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas under the 2012-2017 Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing plan. As part of this environmental scoping process, MMS will gather scientific information about resources, spill response capabilities, and environmental sensitivities.
"The President's plan for responsibly expanding offshore oil and gas exploration and development carefully addresses our nation's energy needs while protecting the health and well-being of our environment and communities," said MMS Science Advisor Dr. Alan Thornhill. "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."
There are 487 leases in the Chukchi Sea; all issued in Sale 193 in 2008. In the Beaufort Sea there are 186 active leases; more than 90 percent of them issued in the two most recent sales -- Sale 195 (in 2005) and Sale 202 (in 2007). In December 2009, MMS approved an Exploration Plan for several Chukchi Sea leases. No exploration has yet been conducted on these existing leases.
The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are included for scoping in the next 5-year program draft Environmental Impact Study. The scoping process for the 2012-2017 program will provide opportunities to hear from local communities who depend on tourism; tribes whose livelihoods depend on the sea; and scientists that study the region.
The Minerals Management Service is also conducting numerous studies of wildlife ecology in the Arctic, especially for polar bears, whales and fish and bird populations. MMS will carry out dozens of technical assessments of mechanical containment and skimming equipment 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 metrological and oceanic trends to identify the safest time windows to transport and set equipment.
The USGS is also involved in a related new research effort that was identified in the 2010 Appropriations legislation called, "Changing Arctic Ecosystems." Through this effort, the USGS is helping to better understand how the widespread loss of Arctic sea ice and changes to terrestrial permafrost-supported habitats will impact landscapes and the ecosystems and wildlife they support. This effort will improve our capacity to better understand and plan for potential wildlife responses into the future.
A Fact Sheet on USGS and MMS Arctic research and studies is at http://www.doi.gov/news/pressreleases/upload/04-13-10-Arctic-studies-Fact-Sheet-USGS_MMS-research-summary.pdf
More information on the Administration's Outer Continental Shelf strategy and Interior activities is at http://www.doi.gov/whatwedo/energy/ocs/