The Interior Department's U.S. Geological Survey has been directed to conduct an "independent evaluation" of the "environmental sensitivities in the Arctic" to assist in developing the next five-year (2012-2017) leasing plan for the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

The Geological Survey will provide the "scientific understanding needed to inform the development of [a] comprehensive strategy for offshore oil and gas development and exploration" in the Arctic region, said Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt during a teleconference briefing last Tuesday. The report is expected to be completed by Oct. 1.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar dismissed an inference that he was simply slow-walking the leasing program in Alaska by ordering additional environmental reviews. "The thrust of this is to make sure that as we develop our oil and gas resources in [the] offshore that we're doing it based on the best science," he told reporters.

It's "important for us to have the best science available as we move forward in creating the next [leasing] plan for oil and gas for 2012-2017," which he said the department was currently working on.

"The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas may hold significant oil and gas reserves. We also know they [have] rich fisheries, are home to wildlife [and] are important to Alaska native villages," Salazar said. Because of the Arctic's importance to various sectors, the Geological Survey will evaluate whatever science is available there and will determine where the "knowledge gaps" exist, he said.

Specifically, McNutt said the Geological Survey's evaluation will focus on the effects of exploration and development on marine mammals; the cumulative impacts of development, infrastructure and maintenance activities on ecosystems; and how changes in climate conditions can either mitigate or compound the impacts from Arctic energy development.

She said the Geological Survey "will gather external input through established groups, such as professional associations...that can represent the consensus viewpoint or summarize major findings."

Alan Thornhill, science advisor for the Minerals Management Service (MMS), reported that the Alaska regional office of MMS will hold four public scoping meetings in June to receive public comments on Arctic leases sales in the next five-year (2012-2017) OCS leasing plan.

In the meantime, he noted that the MMS conditionally approved Shell's plan to drill up to three exploratory wells on leases that were acquired in 2008 in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. In addition, Thornhill said development of wells at BP's Liberty drill rig in the Beaufort Sea is expected to begin this year, and production continues at BP's Northstar facility in the Beaufort Sea.

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