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Interior to study new round of oil, gas leases in Alaska

Erika Bolstad

WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday that his department will spend the next several months determining what it needs to know to make good decisions about future oil and gas leasing in the offshore Arctic.

Between now and Oct. 1, federal scientists will be reviewing what they already know about the Beaufort and Chukchi seas -- as well as looking for what gaps remain in scientific knowledge of the region, and what it will take to close them.

The U.S. Geological Survey and the Minerals Management Service will take the lead in determining what research is needed to develop effective oil-spill response in icy regions as well as what's known about the effects of exploration and development on marine mammals.

They'll also evaluate what scientists know about the cumulative effects of energy extraction in the Arctic ecosystem and what study is needed to learn more.

Salazar's announcement comes less than two weeks after he canceled planned lease sales in the Beaufort and Chukchi until environmental and oil-spill risks could be studied more thoroughly. He allowed drilling on existing leases in the Arctic waters.

The new scientific review is expected to lay the groundwork for what Salazar called "an orderly, scientifically grounded" approach to the Obama administration's offshore oil and gas decisions, including how the Interior Department proceeds with a offshore Arctic leasing program for 2012 through 2017.

"It's important for us to have the best science available as we move forward in crafting the next plan for oil and gas," Salazar said Tuesday.

Salazar also said that they expect to learn from the Dutch oil giant Shell, which is scheduled to drill three exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas this summer. The USGS will not be accompanying or monitoring any company as it does exploratory drilling, but Salazar said they expect to develop critical information about potential future development from the company's experience.

WORKING WITH ALASKANS

The Interior Department will not include the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in its scientific review, Salazar said. On Tuesday, he reiterated the Obama administration's approach to the onshore sanctuary, which last week began a two-year management review that could lead to designating more of the refuge as wilderness.

ANWR "is not on the map for exploration or development," Salazar said. "It never has been under President Obama and it hasn't been for me as secretary of Interior."

Salazar also said regardless of the state's animosity toward the Obama administration's approach to Alaska's natural resources issues, his agency will continue what he called an "ongoing conversation" with the governor, Alaska Natives and other stakeholders over how to develop those resources.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell has made several trips to Washington to urge the Obama administration to consider expanded offshore drilling in Alaska, and also has asked his attorney general to intervene in lawsuits challenging some offshore leases in Alaska.

"We may not always agree with everything the state of Alaska is proposing; we may have different points of view," Salazar said. "But we intend to work with the state of Alaska in every way possible to make sure that their voices are in fact heard. They're closest to the resources and affected significantly by the decisions that we make."

The state has a "significant amount of scientific information" to offer, said USGS Director Marcia McNutt, adding that a climate science center announced this year partners federal researchers and those at the University of Alaska.

ENVIRONMENTALISTS PLEASED

Environmentalists for the most part said they're pleased with the review plan.

"The Obama administration seems to recognize that much more science is needed, and that we need to focus particular attention on the challenges of spills and spill response in icy Arctic waters," said Chris Krenz, Oceana's Arctic project manager.

But once the Salazar-ordered review is complete, many environmentalists also would like for it to be reviewed by a panel of independent scientists. Government scientists have a tendency to work within silos, said Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. Arctic program. A review by other scientists ensures that the government considers as many facets of Arctic development as possible, Heiman said, including consulting Alaska Natives with traditional knowledge of the region.

"We're interested in the ecosystems, that subsistence issues are addressed," Heiman said. "We know so little about the Arctic Ocean."

Find Erika Bolstad online at adn.com/contact/ebolstad or call her in Washington, D.C., at 202-383-6104.


By ERIKA BOLSTAD
ebolstad@adn.com