The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) said Monday a team of scientists has embarked on a three-week expedition to study marine life in the Hanna Shoal area of the Chukchi Sea, a prerequisite to opening areas in offshore Alaska to oil and natural gas leasing.

The Department of Interior (DOI) agency said the scientists left Dutch Harbor, AK, aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy on Sunday and would be tasked with conducting research on the area's teaming marine life, which includes waterfowl, walruses and whales. In late June, the DOI unveiled the final version of its OCS [Outer Continental Shelf] Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2012-2107 (see Daily GPI, June 27). BOEM said information gathered from the Hanna Shoal study would enable it to make informed resource management decisions in the future for the Arctic.

"We are taking a cautious approach to any future leasing in the Arctic and scheduled Alaska sales later in the Five Year Program to allow for continued development of exactly this kind of scientific information," BOEM Director Tommy Beaudreau said.

BOEM said more than 30 sampling studies would be used in the Hanna Shoal study, which is scheduled to run until 2016. During that time researchers will analyze the shoal's physical and oceanographic features, ice conditions and gather any relevant information that could impact local species.

Researchers from the University of Texas, Florida Institute of Technology, the University of Maryland, Old Dominion University, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Rhode Island and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are participating in the Hanna Shoal study.

The OCS program calls for three potential lease sales in offshore Alaska. Sales would be held for planning areas in the Cook Inlet and Chukchi Sea in 2016, while one initially proposed for 2015 in the Beaufort Sea is being put off until 2017. No sales are scheduled for the Atlantic or Pacific coasts.

A 25-mile buffer zone along the coast of the Chukchi would be excluded from leasing, as would the Hanna Shoal and an area north of Barrow, AK, that has a high subsistence value to Native Alaskan communities.

According to federal estimates, the offshore areas that would be available to oil and gas leasing under the program total 67.7 billion bbls of oil, 306.6 Tcf of natural gas and 122.3 billion boe, all of which are considered technically recoverable.

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