Shell, Alaska borough plan joint science studies

Posted: Friday, October 29, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Shell Alaska and the North Slope Borough announced Thursday they will collaborate on scientific research aimed at concerns about petroleum drilling on Alaska's Arctic Ocean outer continental shelf.

Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby and North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta said they have entered a multiyear agreement that will incorporate concerns of villages sprinkled along the coasts of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

The agreement covers five years, with $2 million allocated by Shell for 2010 and 2011.

Itta says the borough has not completed a review of what Shell hopes to do next year - one or two exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea. But he says those plans are more manageable than what the company had planned several years ago.

Shell's plans for the short open water drilling season in 2010 were put on hold by the federal government after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar imposed a suspension on drilling over concerns about what a blowout could do in Arctic waters, where foul weather is legendary and there is far less infrastructure along the coast that could aid in a cleanup effort.

Salazar has not said when he will lift the suspension. Slaiby has said Shell needs a decision by December to move forward with its 2011 plans, which involve moving north a drilling ship and a small fleet of support vessels, including spill response boats. Gov. Sean Parnell in September sued to overturn what he calls an illegal "moratorium."

The borough itself has been critical of drilling plans as it seeks to protect residents who depend on the ocean for a subsistence lifestyle that includes hunting whales, other marine mammals and birds.

Itta said Thursday broad baseline data is needed for protecting villagers' way of life and the U.S. Geological Survey is performing an analysis to determine what is missing.

"There are a whole number of issues, so I can't say specifically the projects will be," he said.

Slaiby said the program, guided by a steering committee with community members, opens up the research process to incorporate traditional knowledge and concerns of residents. Projects could focus on anything from marine organisms to the flow of the ocean, he said.

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