Agencies pledge science-based Arctic decisions

Associated Press
Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes speaks to the Alaska Forum on the Environment on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012, in Anchorage, Alaska. Hayes announced new initiatives that he said would bring the best available science to energy decisions in the Arctic. (AP Photo/Dan Joling)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The federal government will make a renewed commitment to incorporate science into Arctic energy decisions, the Interior Department's deputy secretary said Tuesday, including development of a tool used in the government response to the BP oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

David Hayes announced that two federal agencies will develop an Environmental Response Management Application, known as an ERMA system, for the Arctic. The system collects information and coordinates it with Geographic Information System-based mapping tools. In the Arctic, it would include information such as the extent and concentration of sea ice, ports and pipelines, and sensitive environmental areas.

"We're pumping money into it. We're going to have it up and running within a few months. It's the kind of tool we need to have to make good decisions here in the Arctic," Hayes said in a speech to the Alaska Forum on the Environment.

The ERMA system will be developed by Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Response and Restoration. The ERMA system and other initiatives underscore the importance the Obama administration is placing on science, Hayes said.

"Science-based decision-making is better decision-making and is essential decision-making," Hayes said.

Obama in July appointed Hayes head of a new interagency working group created to coordinate energy development in Alaska, including proposed offshore drilling the remote Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska's northwest and north coasts. Hayes said all federal agencies with a stake in the regulatory process would simultaneously review a drilling application.

Shell Oil, which spent $2.1 billion in 2008 for leases in the Chukchi Sea, has proposed drilling exploratory wells there and in the Beaufort Sea during the 2012 summer open water season. The company is awaiting federal permitting decisions, including approval of its spill response plan.

Drilling is bitterly opposed by environmental and Alaska Native groups who contend that far too little basic information has been collected about the Arctic and threats from large-scale industrial drilling, such as effects on endangered marine mammals and other resources that subsistence users depend on.

To expand the knowledge base, Hayes said, the interagency working group will ask energy companies to share science data beyond what the law requires in connection with work in the Arctic. ConocoPhillips, he said, ahead of its development project within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska agreed to share bird surveys and data on hydrologic conditions in the Colville River.

"This is the kind of information that companies operating in that area are uniquely capable of collecting and giving to us and making available to the public to synthesize into broader data bases," Hayes said. "That's going to be the expectation that we have of companies we are permitting for activities in the Arctic."

Hayes said part of the challenge is incorporating existing science studies into policy decisions. He and former Alaska Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer discussed the problem with policy-makers and scientists last year.

"We started a dialogue in December in the federal family about how we can better match up the research agenda going forward with the needs of decision-makers," she said.

A second meeting on improving collaboration will be held this spring with scientists, industry officials, Alaska Natives, non-government organizations and state and federal decision-makers, Hayes said.