Scientists must improve their understanding of how climate change could affect oil and gas development in the Arctic while gathering more data to assess and respond to potential oil spills, according to a long-awaited study released today by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The agency's 279-page report calls for a sharper regional understanding of how climate change may affect factors including storm frequency and intensity, circulation patterns and the behavior of wildlife.
The study also 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.
"There is significant potential for oil and gas development in U.S. Arctic waters, but this is a frontier area with harsh weather conditions as well as unique fish and wildlife resources that Alaska's indigenous people rely on for subsistence," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement. "This study is helpful in assessing what we know and will help inform determinations about what we need to know to develop our Arctic energy resources in the right places in the right way."
The study comes as the Obama administration faces difficult decisions over whether to allow Royal Dutch Shell PLC and other companies to drill new exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the northern coast of Alaska.
Alaska's congressional delegation, state officials and industry advocates say safe exploration is needed to tap what federal scientists believe is 26 billion barrels of oil and substantial deposits of natural gas.
But environmental groups warn that harsh Arctic winds, limited sunlight and ice-covered waters would complicate oil spill cleanups and that development activities could disturb migrating marine mammals and other species.
The USGS study found that population estimates are poor, or even nonexistent, for many marine mammal species, and that there is scant information about wintering distribution and habitats for most species except polar bears and gray whales.
It also found that recent information on marine birds for most of the study is lacking or unpublished.
But while the goal of the report was to identify "science gaps" involving oil and gas development of the Arctic's outer continental shelf, USGS cautioned that there is little agreement over what constitutes "sufficient science."
"These concepts vary with the values and beliefs of every concerned individual when faced with complex issues and uncertainty," the report says. "Decisions to develop resources in the Arctic are inherently difficult because they must consider factors such as the economic stakes, Native traditions, environmental risks and multiple objectives."
While there are areas in which sufficient research exists to make sound decisions, there are also areas where additional science is clearly needed. "But there also is an area in which more than science is needed," the report says.
The report urges a collaborative and accountable science planning process to help inform decisions over whether or how to proceed with oil and gas development in the Arctic.
The report also recommends developing foundational geospatial data on the Arctic OCS and working to synthesize existing scientific information on a wide range of topics on the Arctic.
"I want to applaud the USGS team for the very thorough and inclusive way in which they conducted this study of the Arctic," USGS Director Marcia McNutt said in a statement. "They examined more than 400 scientific publications, workshop findings and science policy documents; met with more than 40 individuals and organizations that have research or science assessments on these areas; and held a series of discussions with key stakeholders, including North Slope and Native Alaskan interests, the oil industry, federal agencies, the State of Alaska and non-governmental organizations."
Both critics and supporters of energy development in the Arctic embraced the report.
Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. Arctic Program, said the report highlights the need for identifying important ecological and subsistence areas to protect from drilling and better methods for tracking spilled oil under icy Arctic conditions.
"Although a good deal of research has been completed, very little of it has been synthesized in a way that can guide informed decisions regarding if, when, where and how oil drilling should take place," she said.
Heiman has lobbied Interior to narrow the drilling season to end in August instead of October and to limit Shell's drilling permit to one well rather than several, with a relief rig and containment dome on standby in case of a blowout.
In addition, a long-term monitoring program must be established to gauge the effects of drilling and oil spills on walruses, ice seals, bowhead whales and other marine mammals, she said.
"There has been a lot of science done by industry and [the former Minerals Management Service], but we don't see how that science is being translated into decisions," Heiman said. "You have to ask the right questions in order to receive the answers you need."
Leah Donahey, western Arctic and oceans program director for the Alaska Wilderness League, said the report highlights major gaps in data on marine mammals such as the threatened polar bear and the endangered bowhead whale as well as currents and tidal systems -- gaps that must be filled before any decisions about drilling in the Arctic Ocean can be made.
But Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who is a strong advocate for Arctic development, said the report highlights Alaska's oil and gas resource potential. He said responsible development could enhance the nation's energy security.
"At the same time, the 'gap analysis' identifies a number of steps that should be taken to ensure that development of energy resources is done in a way that protects the other values in the Arctic, including subsistence hunting and fishing," he said in a statement. "The report suggests that federal agencies can learn from greater collaboration with local communities, particularly from local traditional knowledge, as well from international collaboration."
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