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Scientists call for more data on Arctic oil-spill prevention

Alex DeMarban

A group of scientists is working to create a suggested plan of action that identifies key data they say should be gathered before offshore drilling in the Alaska Arctic can proceed.

Key items that decision-makers should know before Shell or other companies drill for oil and gas include more knowledge about the impact of noise on marine mammals, the effects of climate change, and wind and current data that can better identify the path an oil spill would take in the Beaufort or Chukchi seas, said Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. Arctic Program.

The report should be released this summer, Heiman told state lawmakers and other members of the Alaska Northern Waters Task Force at a meeting in Kotzebue today.

The scientists, led by Robert Spies, chief scientist for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, are independently reviewing a recent U.S. Geological Survey report that identified knowledge "gaps" related to the offshore environment.

It was requested by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to help guide him and other officials overseeing proposed oil and gas development in the region.

The plan can help guide the Interior Department to take a comprehensive approach to research, said Heiman.

Heiman had positive things to say about Shell Oil Company and its plans to drill in the Arctic, saying the company's proposals go beyond what's expected to prevent an oil spill.

The Dutch giant has said they'll have multiple blowout preventers and shear rams, a backup drilling rig and a containment dome to prevent a gusher or stop it if it happens, as well as sophisticated satellite data to track ice movement at night or in fog.

But such high standards shouldn't be an option in the sensitive Arctic, Heiman said. They should be required so they're implemented by all companies hoping to drill in the Arctic.

Heiman made additional recommendations, including:

• Federal and state spill prevention and response standards should be updated and tailored to the Arctic environment, while raising the definition of a worst-case scenario to anticipate a massive spill.

• An Arctic regional citizen advisory council should be created, similar to one that exists in Prince William Sound.

• Training for local residents who can serve as the front lines in a spill response. They should be able to access clean up equipment and deploy it.

• Studies conducted by various groups and industry should be consolidated into one digital database, perhaps managed by the state university, and be made publicly available.

The task force, created by the state Legislature and chaired by Rep. Reggie Joule of Kotzebue, could be a precursor to a commission that will coordinate state and federal interest in Arctic development and its impacts.

The 11-member group, also consisting of business and government leaders from Arctic hub communities and others, heard on Thursday from Shell officials, U.S. Coast Guard officers, Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, and others.

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Adam Shaw told the task force the branch is looking at boosting its Arctic presence - the nearest base is more than 1,000 miles away in Kodiak - to respond to increased vessel traffic and such things as a cruise ship in distress.

Shaw noted there are significant limitations for dealing with a major disaster in Barrow, including lodging, and for, a unified command, meeting space and communications infrastructure.

The Coast Guard is currently looking at the possibility of bringing hangars and aircraft seasonally to the Arctic region instead of a port, to bring more resources to the Arctic in the short-term, he said.

The task force visited the Red Dog Mine north of Kotzebue on Wednesday and plans to meet in Nome on Friday.

Others recommended boosting involvement of local marine pilots familiar with ice who can assist vessels, doing more to track foreign-flagged vessels transiting through the Arctic, and identifying important subsistence hunting areas and habitat so those spots can be protected.

In fact, the Northwest Arctic Borough is currently working on a subsistence mapping project, said Tom Okleasik, the borough's planning director. The effort leans heavily on traditional knowledge and will be peer-reviewed by elders and hunters, but also is informed by scientific data.

The meetings are being broadcast live on www.alaskalegislature.tv.

This story is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round.

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