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Arctic Needs More Oil-Drilling Protection, Pew Report Finds

By Katarzyna Klimasinska – Sep 26, 2011 7:58 PM GMT+0100

President Barack Obama’s administration should add to protection for Arctic wildlife as the U.S. moves to allow oil-drilling off the Alaska coast next year, a study commissioned by environmental groups said.

The government should make special efforts to avoid harm in the most sensitive habitats and gather comprehensive data about seals, walruses and bowhead whales of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, where Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA) has bought leases, and the research should be publicly accessible, according to a report released today by the Pew Environment Group and the Washington- based Ocean Conservancy.

The study was issued on the last day of public comments for an updated environmental study of Chukchi Sea oil leases. Shell, based in The Hague, spent $2.1 billion for leases in 2008 and hasn’t yet drilled a well because environmental and native groups disputed the auction. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will decide whether to affirm or cancel the sale now that the new review is finished.

“When it comes to the fragile Arctic, science, not politics, needs to guide decision-making,” Marilyn Heiman, Pew’s U.S. Arctic director, said in a statement. Additional research is needed “if we are to avoid irreparable harm to an ecosystem found nowhere else in U.S. waters.”

Shell’s Beaufort Sea exploration plan won approval in August on the condition that the company also get permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Spill Science Adviser

The company’s Alaska plans are “built on decades of scientific research,” Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said today in an e-mail. “It’s our view that there is enough science to support an exploration program.”

Pew and the Ocean Conservancy hired Robert Spies, who was chief science adviser for Alaska and the U.S. on effects of the Exxon Valdez tanker accident in 1989, which dumped about 260,000 barrels of crude into Prince William Sound. For today’s report, Spies led 14 Arctic researchers in reviewing science needs for decision-making on offshore drilling in the icy waters.

Shell expects Salazar to approve the Chukchi sale, according to Pete Slaiby, its vice president for Alaska. The company has said it includes mammal observers on each vessel engaged in its seismic studies and exploration. The company installed buoys that record animal sounds and help map their migrations, according to company’s website.

According to op de Weegh, $500 million has been spent on Arctic data, including $50 million by Shell. She said more than 5,000 independent studies have been conducted.

Drilling Activity

The scientists didn’t set a deadline for their proposals.

“Ideally, we would like to see these recommendations in place before exploration drilling is approved,” Heiman said in an e-mail. “We are concerned that drilling activity could get out ahead of the needed science.”

The Pew Environment Group is part of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia and Washington.

“We will review Pew’s recommendations,” Interior Department spokesman Adam Fetcher said in an e-mail today. “We continue to listen to affected communities and gather and assess the environmental, ecological and technical information that will inform our decisions on oil and gas development.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Katarzyna Klimasinska in Washington at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Liebert at [email protected]

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