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Drilling in Arctic waters? Scientists aren't sure if it is safe

June 24, 2011 |  4:00 pm

Arctic map 
Escalating oil prices and diminishing supplies around the world are focusing more attention than ever on the vast petroleum reserves under the Arctic seabed, and in the relatively pristine shoreline areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The Obama administration is moving to speed up drilling where possible, but the nagging problem with a wholesale move into the Arctic is how much we don't know about the remote, fragile region. How much more drilling can safely be accommodated?

Can polar bears survive the twin threats of shrinking sea ice and greater ship traffic? What about fish stocks and an acidifying ocean? Bowhead whales might be able to migrate around new oil platforms, but will they be stressed out by drilling noise? And what if their food supplies are shrinking as well?

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in March 2010 ordered up a report on what we don't know, and need to know, about what is happening to the Arctic environment. This week, the answer finally arrived, in the form of a long-awaited new report from the U.S. Geological Survey on what science gaps need to be filled to safely carry on the march into one of the coldest and least-understood places on the planet.

"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," Salazar said in a statement accompanying the report. "To make responsible decisions, we need to understand the environmental and social consequences of development and plan accordingly. 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."

If you were waiting for answers, forget it. The 292-page report doesn't have them, but it does do a Arctic map 2  decent job of laying out the questions. And they're big, USGS analysts say.

First, the effects of climate change have to be understood and then taken into account, the report says. Already, the number of days that seismic exploration vehicles can operate on the tundra without causing environmental harm (meaning over a protective layer of ice) has shrunk from 200 to 100 over the past 30 years.

Continued projections of even more accelerated sea ice loss "will ultimately affect nearly every aspect of the Arctic environment," the report says, because plants and animals there are so uniquely adapted to the specific extreme conditions that have been the norm until now.

"Energy activities may exacerbate those changes, unless careful analysis of risks and tradeoffs is conducted," the report warns, though it also recognizes that less extreme weather could reduce the chances of drilling accidents and spills.

Speaking of which -- only recently have federal regulators been talking frankly about the realistic possibility of a heavy-duty oil blowout and the threat that might present in a place so far from deep-water harbors and full-scale cleanup equipment, not to mention the problems of maneuvering such equipment through the ice.

USGS analysts said it will be important to learn more about cleanup technologies for icy conditions, how quickly spilled oil would break down in cold Arctic climes, migration patterns of oil -- a host of unknowns.

"There have been significant advances in spill-risk evaluation and response knowledge, but concern remains that key inputs to spill models (oceanographic, weather, ecological) are insufficient and that the manner in which ecological data are included is not always clear, nor quantitative," a fact sheet that accompanies the report says.

"Significant questions exist about the scientific and technical information needed for contingency planning and prompt emergency response (response gap) in the Arctic, which are potentially complicated by a changing climate," it says.

Other questions highlighted in the report include:

-- The impact of drilling noise on marine mammals: "Large uncertainty still exists in understanding how impacts to individual animals may affect characteristics in the populations and research is needed on this topic. An inventory of seismic sound sources used in the Arctic Ocean does not exist," it says.

-- Cumulative impacts of Arctic development. "When actions are considered individually or independently, their combined consequences -- or cumulative impact -- may not be fully considered or evaluated. This results in misunderstanding, and failure to consider the long range impact of multiple decisions over a large area or over time."

It may be that there never will be firm scientific answers to the uncertainties that exist on the Arctic frontier, the USGS analysts admit, and the take-home message of their report is their call for a "structured decisionmaking" process to bring various parties to the table to work through the questions.

"Opinions on development run the gamut from 'there is already enough science' to 'there will never be enough science,' the report said. "Many of the challenges emerging in Arctic oil and gas development decision making are beyond the ability of science alone to resolve. There is no 'silver bullet.'"

For those wanting to hear more on the state of science in the Arctic, Shell Alaska, which is hoping to conduct major new exploratory drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska next year, in 2010 put together an assessment (part two is here) of what the science shows so far (much of which has been compiled by the oil industry, as it happens, during decades of early Arctic oil and gas exploration).

A coalition of conservation groups, including Audubon Alaska, Oceana, Ocean Conservancy and Pew Environment Group, in March submitted to federal regulators their own analysis showing widespread knowledge gaps that still exist.

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Shell adds precautions for Arctic drilling

-- Kim Murphy

Map: Top, North Slope of Alaska from Point Hope to the United States–Canada border showing principal coastal communities, Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing areas, and major Federal land holdings. From the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, formerly the Minerals Management Service (2008). Side, Undiscovered oil: Assessment units of the Circum-Arctic Oil and Gas Assessment, color-coded according to the mean estimated undiscovered, technically recoverable oil resources. The open rectangle denotes the approximate location of the Alaska North Slope and Beaufort and Chukchi Seas OCS areas. Modified from Gautier and others (2009).

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