ARCTIC:

Report finds gaps in USGS study on offshore drilling

A U.S. Geological Survey report last summer on the nation's capacity to assess impacts from oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean was credible and unbiased but failed to identify which scientific gaps are most important to fill, according to a new report commissioned by a pair of conservation groups.

The report by the Pew Environment Group and Ocean Conservancy also recommended that the Interior Department better monitor cumulative changes in Arctic waters, disseminate more research to the public, synthesize existing knowledge and identify biologically important areas that should be off-limits to development.

Yesterday's release of the 40-page white paper came as Interior nears the end of a yearlong supplemental review of oil and gas leasing in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast. The agency must issue a record of decision on the 2008 sale by a court-ordered deadline of Oct. 3.

If the lease is affirmed as proposed, Interior would then review Royal Dutch Shell PLC's proposal to drill six exploratory wells in shallow Chukchi waters beginning next July. Interior has already conditionally approved Shell's plan to drill four wells in the Beaufort Sea beginning next summer.

The decision could open doors to an area widely believed to contain the nation's largest untapped oil reserve, estimated at 26 billion barrels. Shell in 2008 paid $2.1 billion for leases in the Chukchi Sea, which is believed to contain most of the Arctic's oil.

But environmentalists have urged caution, arguing that Arctic drilling poses severe challenges including remoteness, ice, frigid temperatures and long period of darkness in winter months.

In addition, the USGS study found that "significant questions" remain about the scientific and technical information needed for effective oil-spill risk assessment, preparedness and response in the Arctic, all of which could be potentially complicated by a changing climate, groups note (E&ENews PM, June 23).

"If we are to avoid irreparable harm to an ecosystem found nowhere else in U.S. waters, we need to develop a comprehensive research and monitoring plan and set aside significant areas for protection," said Marilyn Heiman, director of Pew's U.S. Arctic Program.

The report this week features commentary from more than a dozen scientists mainly associated with universities, conservation organizations and consulting groups. Interior was not involved in the report.

It warns that Arctic ecosystems are unique and complex but not yet fully characterized. For example, the Chukchi Sea sustains a rich seabed and large numbers of birds, walrus, seals and whales, but agencies have only scant knowledge of how the ecosystem would respond to various physical and chemical changes.

The report also criticized the USGS study for lacking sufficient discussion of unpublished research, failing to identify recommended research priorities and lacking specific plans to improve integrated monitoring to assess cumulative impacts.

The USGS study, the report notes, warns that while there are volumes of scientific data on the Arctic environment, the information is scattered and therefore inaccessible to the scientific community, much less for policymakers and the public.

But it commends the agency for addressing the issues with integrity.

"The agency has taken a thoughtful approach and dealt with the issues without bias," the report notes. "This effort is a significant advance toward reducing uncertainty about the impacts of outer continental shelf development in the Arctic."

Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said the agency is reviewing the report and that Secretary Ken Salazar is committed to using sound science to develop energy "in the right places and the right ways."

"He understands that responsible development of energy resources in this area -- especially in the Arctic's extreme environment -- requires wise decisions about potential resource exploration and extraction activities," Fetcher said in an email.

"We will review Pew's recommendations as we continue to listen to affected communities and gather and assess the environmental, ecological and technical information that will inform our decisions ... including the protection of wildlife and their critical habitats."