The Blog Aquatic » Interior Department News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Alaska Interagency Working Group: “Whole of Government” Integrated Arctic Management is in Everyone’s Best Interest Fri, 05 Apr 2013 14:51:08 +0000 Stan Senner

Credit: Laura L. Whitehouse FWS

America’s Arctic is an extraordinary place, and it has fired my imagination since I first conducted field research in coastal northwest Alaska in 1977. Although indigenous people have occupied and influenced Alaska’s coast for millennia, the Arctic coastal and marine ecosystem is still wild, pristine and productive. There is still largely a full complement of native fish and wildlife that not only persist, but thrive in the Arctic alongside human communities with vibrant cultures.

Since the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 however, our attempts to access this energy have transformed the landscape of the central Arctic and prompted many changes for the people who live and work, study and recreate in the region. And the pace of change is only accelerating.

Decisions about whether, where and when to drill for more oil and gas are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg—which, not incidentally, is now melting–and increased vessel traffic, tourism, mining and road-building are all on the horizon. All of these changes are occurring in a naturally variable ecosystem, which is now reeling from the effects of an increasingly acidic ocean and a warming climate.

A fundamental problem here is that critical decisions are made in isolation by dozens of different agencies on at least at three levels of government without regard to the cumulative impacts of those decisions across the region. There is no long-term view of what the Arctic should look like 50 years from now, or what is required to sustain a productive ecosystem. Unfortunately, the impacts of decisions made in isolation tend to accumulate and multiply while the Arctic is not so slowly transformed before our eyes. Enter Integrated Arctic Management (IAM).

In 2011, President Obama established the Alaska Interagency Working Group, aimed at analyzing energy development and permitting in the state. Under the leadership of Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes, this working group has been exploring what IAM might look like in the Arctic, and an initial report has now been delivered to the president.

It will take time to delve into the report’s details and recommendations, but the concept of integrated management is the right one. Coordinating decision making among all levels of government, and more effectively engaging communities, partners and stakeholders to make decisions based on sound science and a vision for the future is just common sense. Furthermore, the IAM approach of deciding in advance where the most environmentally sensitive areas are in order to protect, monitor and manage them appropriately makes far more sense than waiting until the ecosystem is fragmented and degraded.

No single report from the Interagency Working Group is going to transform decision making or the Arctic, but my hope is that the seeds of a different approach are contained here. My colleagues and I at Ocean Conservancy will be reading this report with great interest and working to implement recommendations that advance integrated decision making in the Arctic. We know that the old piecemeal approach doesn’t work. It should be in the best interests of all concerned—industry, government, residents, and the public—to try something new.


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Salazar: Shell Screwed Up Thu, 14 Mar 2013 22:41:29 +0000 Andrew Hartsig

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

“Shell screwed up in 2012.” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was bluntly accurate when speaking about Shell’s calamitous Arctic drilling program today.

The Interior Department’s new high-level, 60-day review – while not comprehensive – calls attention to serious shortcomings in Shell’s 2012 effort and recommends a more thorough, integrated approach to planning and oversight before deciding on whether to approve future Arctic drilling operations.

The review confirms what we already knew: that Shell simply was not ready to conduct safe and responsible operations in icy Arctic waters. It also demonstrates that federal agencies need to do a better job holding the oil industry accountable and setting higher standards for safety and environmental protection.

To that end, Shell will be required to submit a “comprehensive, integrated plan” covering all aspects of drilling and related operations, and “commission and complete a full third-party audit” of its management systems.

The company’s drilling program was plagued by problems throughout the season. Its performance has been notable only for its failures, and has provided us with a laundry list of reasons for why industry is not ready for offshore oil exploration in the Arctic.

The Interior Department initiated its urgent review of Shell’s actions in the Arctic in light of the recent grounding of the Kulluk drilling rig off the coast of Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. The company’s other Arctic drillship—the Noble Discoverer—suffered significant problems with propulsion, safety and pollution prevention systems. As a result, Shell now plans to dry-tow both vessels to Asia for repair and renovation. This latest setback prompted the troubled oil company to announce that it would hit pause on its plans to drill in the Arctic during the 2013 season.

While Shell’s admission of defeat this year reduces the short-term threat of Arctic drilling, it only makes the findings of the Interior Department’s review that much more important in the long run. Shell may have halted its drilling operations for now, but it plans to bring its drill rigs back to the Arctic soon. Furthermore, ConocoPhillips recently declared that it is not backing off on its plan to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic in 2014.

Without meaningful action from the Interior Department and other government agencies, Arctic drilling could lead to a disaster for the region. As the 60-day review put it, a “significant accident or spill in the remote and inhospitable Alaskan Arctic could have catastrophic consequences on fragile ecosystems and the people who depend on the ocean for subsistence.”

The Interior Department’s review is a first step on the road to implementing stronger, safer and more protective oversight of Arctic waters. Now, government agencies need to follow through on the report’s recommendations and make meaningful changes to the way they plan for and manage Arctic oil and gas operations.

In the meantime, there should be a complete time-out on Arctic drilling until we have improved our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, protected important ecological and subsistence areas and developed effective methods to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic water. Thankfully, Shell’s decision to pass on the 2013 drilling season gives us time to make progress.

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How the Sequestration is Bad for the Ocean Tue, 05 Mar 2013 19:13:06 +0000 Jim Wintering

In recent years, federal budgetary concerns have loomed over almost every legislative battle in Congress. However, the sequestration that began on March 1st presents a uniquely ominous challenge by imposing drastic, across the board cuts on almost every government program.  With an ongoing debate on how to avoid the full implementation of the sweeping cuts, here are some impacts that such a steep drop in federal funding could have on marine conservation and ocean ecosystems.

The cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in particular could present significant harm to longstanding ocean conservation programs. In an immediate sense, they will force NOAA to furlough, or temporarily put on unpaid leave, up to 2,600 agency employees; amounting to almost 20% of the agency’s workforce. Furthermore, NOAA may need to cut 1,400 existing contractor jobs, while leaving an additional 2,700 positions unfilled.

These workforce reductions would leave NOAA tremendously understaffed to implement items like fishery stock assessments, which are essential to support effective fisheries management and the fishing industry at large. As fishermen throughout the nation rely on the accurate reports of NOAA scientists to avoid overfishing, this isn’t only an issue for marine ecosystems, but is a jobs issue that will negatively impact families nationwide.

Workforce reductions at NOAA would also significantly harm America’s $1 trillion shipping industry that supports 13 million jobs in this country by hindering the agency’s ability to examine real-time information on tide and water levels. The nautical charts that NOAA produces with this information are crucial to prevent ships from grounding, and without them the shipping industry will be put in a highly compromised position.

In addition, NOAA is the lead federal agency for maintaining coastal resilience and mitigating the impacts of storms like the recent Superstorm Sandy.  Without the buffers of sandy beaches and coastal wetlands, storms like Sandy wreak havoc on coastal communities.  Funding cuts at NOAA will decrease the agency’s ability to restore and protect the estuaries, wetlands and ocean ecosystems that contribute to coastal resilience.  As a result, future mega-storms will be more likely to produce devastating effects for coastal communities.

Hurricanes like Sandy will also be harder to prepare for due to cuts to NOAA’s weather satellite program. NOAA’s government satellites play an essential role in weather forecasting. Due to the Sequestration it is expected that the launch of two new geostationary satellites will be delayed by two to three years. According to Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, this will “increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings.” Such a gap will decrease the accuracy of weather reports that are vital to storm preparedness for coastal communities.

Beyond NOAA, the Interior Department has raised sizeable concerns regarding the Sequester’s impact. The National Park Service (NPS) has already highlighted upwards of 100 national park sites that could be shuttered in response; easily one of the most immediately tangible effects of the outsized budget cuts. Many of the affected parks like Channel Islands in California and Key Biscayne in Florida provide tremendous marine recreational opportunities that will go away if the Sequestration goes fully into effect.

While America may face significant budgetary issues, Congress cannot utilize a “meat cleaver” approach that wantonly subtracts funds from important programs. Ocean conservation, like so many other public issues, deserves to be treated with a thoughtful and measured approach. This is why Congress must step back from the Sequestration’s overly broad agency reductions. We only have one shot to protect the ocean and the people and wildlife it supports, so we’d better make it count.

(Addie Haughey contributed to this post)

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Three Reasons We’re Hopeful About a New Interior Secretary Wed, 06 Feb 2013 19:54:19 +0000 Guest Blogger



President Obama made a bold decision to nominate REI CEO Sally Jewell for Interior Department secretary. She still needs to go through a rigorous confirmation process, but here are some early signs why she could be good news for the ocean:

1. She has demonstrated a professional commitment to conservation in the past.

Worth a read, our own Sarah van Schagen interviewed Jewell for in 2007 about REI’s sustainability efforts and how she incorporates outdoor recreation and conservation into her own life. She understands what it takes to make a greener company and knows what the government can do to make that easier.

2. She has demonstrated a personal commitment to conservation and the outdoors.

Her passion for the outdoors is clear. Obviously having access to all that REI gear has to help, but she’s also given her time to being on the board of that National Parks Conservation Association.

3. She is an engineer.

There’s already chatter about Jewell’s experience with oil and gas — but it’s important to note she wasn’t a lobbyist, executive or policy expert, she was an engineer. That means she’s likely to have an understanding of the practical challenges that make drilling in remote areas, like the Arctic, so risky and to understand the importance of relying on science to inform decision-making. This is important because right now we are urging the Interior Department to reconsider Shell’s attempts to drill in the Arctic given the cavalcade of mishaps they’ve experienced in the past year.

There is a lot that the Interior Department can get right or wrong in the coming months and years. Balancing our nation’s energy needs, including offshore oil and wind, with the challenge of climate change and the charge to protect and restore some of our country’s most special places is no easy feat. At this early stage, we are hopeful about Sally Jewell and look forward to learning more about her vision.



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Now More Than Ever, We Need Better Arctic Science Thu, 28 Jun 2012 15:00:46 +0000 Andrew Hartsig Large ice flows in the Arctic Ocean

© Corbis. All rights reserved.

Today the Obama administration announced a decision to include Arctic lease sales in its new five-year offshore drilling program.

This decision is disappointing — especially considering that it was just a year ago that the U.S. Geological Survey released a report outlining significant gaps in science that must be addressed to make no-regrets choices about oil and gas development in the Arctic. Many of those gaps have yet to be filled.

How can federal agencies make informed decisions about future lease sales or exploration drilling without a better understanding of the Arctic ecosystem?

A major oil spill would be devastating for this unique and exceptionally productive ecosystem and the subsistence way of life in Arctic coastal communities. Despite the Interior Department’s optimism, there is no proven capacity to effectively clean up spilled oil in icy frozen waters.

But there are a few encouraging signs in the new five-year program.

For instance, the Interior Department has pledged to shift to a more targeted approach to any future Arctic lease sales and to exclude certain areas of the Arctic Ocean from the new leasing program.

In addition, the Interior Department scheduled the potential new Arctic lease sales toward the end of the five-year program, which gives the agency time to adopt meaningful conservation measures in the region. But it’s absolutely imperative that the Interior Department use that time wisely.

Before deciding whether to proceed with any new lease sales, the agency must:

  • Develop and implement a comprehensive science and monitoring program;
  • Identify and protect additional important ecological and subsistence areas; and
  • Implement Arctic-specific standards that ensure effective oil spill response in icy waters.

As the agency decides whether and under what conditions to hold future Arctic lease sales, it should consider only those areas where scientific and other evidence shows that oil and gas activities can be conducted without harming the ecosystem or opportunities for subsistence.

If we want to maintain a healthy, intact and functioning Arctic ecosystem, the Interior Department must commit to understanding and protecting this vulnerable region.

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