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House Dems to Interior: More science needed before Shell can drill off Alaska

By Ben Geman – 12/21/10 01:06 PM ET

More than three-dozen House Democrats are urging the Interior Department not to approve Royal Dutch Shell’s request to drill in Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast next year until more scientific information is available.

The lawmakers, in a letter Friday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, say the agency should wait for an ongoing scientific review by its U.S. Geological Survey, which is reviewing literature about the effects of drilling on marine mammals and others issues, and identifying knowledge gaps.

“This report, expected in April 2011, is an important first step to understanding the complex and fragile ecosystem of the Arctic Ocean. We believe that at a minimum, this report should be complete and incorporated into any environmental assessment regarding future drilling plans in the Arctic,” states the letter spearheaded by Reps. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and James Moran (D-Va.).

The letter praises Interior’s announcement early this month that it is conducting new environmental analysis of the region in light of Shell’s request to drill in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s northern coast.

But the lawmakers also express doubt that drilling can be conducted safely and cite the BP spill the Gulf of Mexico.

“Considering the obstacles to cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico, it is clear that we are completely unprepared to respond to a spill in the Arctic. Gale-force winds, temperatures below freezing and persistent storms are routine in the Arctic. The Department does not know what the effects of an oil spill in the Beaufort Sea would be and Shell’s plan to respond to an oil spill is untested,” the lawmakers write.

A spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he is committed to science-based decision-making in the region. “Secretary Salazar believes we need to continue to take a cautious approach in the Arctic that is guided by science and the voices of North Slope communities,” spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said.

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