Geological Survey to Review Impacts of Arctic Drilling

When the Obama Administration announced in December that it would allow drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea for the first time in nearly 20 years, environmentalists worried about the effect on the bowhead whale and other marine life in the pristine habitat off northwest Alaska. They called for a scientific review of the ecosystem and possible impacts from drilling.

Today, they got their wish. The Department of the Interior (DOI), which sells the oil and gas leases on the outer continental shelf, announced that the U.S. Geological Survey would carry out a review of existing science and deliver it by 1 October. The results could guide how current leases for the Chukchi and adjacent Beaufort Sea, awarded in 2008, are implemented, and inform the assessment of environmental impacts needed before the government sells the next set of leases beginning in 2012.

The report will:

  • Examine effects of energy exploration on marine mammals
  • Evaluate cumulative effects of energy extraction on ecosystems
  • Identify research needs for oil-spill response in ice-covered regions
  • Review how climate change may affect impacts from energy development

DOI has been accused of catering to the oil industry in its past environmental assessments. Last week, the Government Accountability Office criticized DOI's Minerals Management Service (MMS), which runs the leasing program, for improperly conducting environmental assessments of Arctic oil exploration. The GAO report noted that MMS staff scientists have claimed that some of their analyses were suppressed by agency officials in 2006.

"We're very appreciative, and we're optimistic that [the new report] will be independent," says Eleanor Huffines of the Pew Charitable Trusts's U.S. Arctic Program.