Obama administration outlines Arctic energy policy initiatives

Obama administration officials announced a series of initiatives that they said are aimed at bringing the best available science to energy-related decisions in the Arctic. The initiatives include development of an Arctic environmental emergency response mechanism by this summer, they told the Alaska Forum on the Environment in Anchorage.

“We must draw on the best available science when making development decisions,” said Deputy US Interior Sec. David J. Hayes, who chairs the federal interagency working group established in July by US President Barack Obama to coordinate energy development in Alaska.

The US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration will jointly develop an environmental response management application (ERMA) to collect and put on easily accessible Geographic Information System-based maps data that Arctic region officials can use to respond to emergencies, the agencies said in a separate announcement.

Federal responders to the 2010 Macondo well crude oil spill used a similar interactive online mapping system, noted BSEE Director James A. Watson, who was federal on-scene coordinator for the US Coast Guard during that Gulf of Mexico incident. “Adding this tool to the Arctic region would provide a tremendous boost to the current oil spill response capabilities there,” he said.

Possibly critical tool

“Launching this tool for responders, media, and the public during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was a groundbreaking technical achievement and one of the most significant contributions NOAA provided to the historic, large-scale response,” said Monica Medina, NOAA principal deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere. “Reconfiguring this application to meet the needs of responders in the remote marine Arctic environment could prove to be the most critical tool in effectively preparing for, responding to, and mitigating situations where limited assets, personnel, and facilities exist.”

The Arctic ERMA will bring together all the available information needed for an effective emergency response by integrating and synthesizing real-time and static data into a single interactive map, the agencies said. It will be equipped with near real-time oceanographic and weather observations from NOAA and critical information from BSEE and numerous other federal and state response agencies, they indicated.

Responders will be able to customize the tool further with environmental, logistical, and operational data such as fishery closure areas, resources at risk maps, and mariner notices, depending on the need, BSEE and NOAA said.

NOAA originally began to develop the Arctic ERMA to address growing energy exploration and transportation activity in the region amid the emerging risk of spills and other accidents, the agencies said. BSEE will partner with NOAA to complete the project, which will contain information such as the extent and concentration of sea ice, locations of ports and pipelines, and vulnerable environmental resources once it becomes operational, they indicated.

Share more data

Hayes said the federal interagency working group also will call on companies working in the Arctic to share data to improve access to the best available data regarding conditions there. This will go beyond the current enhanced federal requirements for spill response planning and will emphasize the collection of traditional knowledge by federal, state and Alaska Native leaders, he said.

He noted that ConocoPhillips Co. recently agreed to support the collection of data on baseline conditions in the area of its CD-5 project, as well as hydrologic conditions on the Nigliq Channel during spring break up and over-bank flood events. Other companies operating in the Arctic also will be called upon to share information on conditions in areas where they are working and to add to the region’s scientific databases. Information collected from these sources will be disseminated among federal, state, local, and tribal entities through the Arctic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, the Alaskan Climate Science Center, and other organizations, Hayes said.

A third initiative will continue efforts which the DOI official and Arctic Research Commission Chairman Fran Ulmer began in December when they convened top federal policymakers and federal scientists to discuss ways to improve the delivery of relevant scientific information to officials responsible for Alaskan energy development decisions.

Hayes noted that he and Ulmer will hold a second meeting this spring with scientists, nongovernment organizations, oil and gas officials, Alaska natives, and state and federal decision-makers to enhance collaboration. The dialogue is a response to the US Geological Survey’s 2011 recommendation that more dialogue and collaborative science planning occur between and among the scientific community and federal agencies involved in oil and gas development decisions, he explained.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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