MMS Ensuring Environmental Safety For 2011 Bering Sea Lease Sale

The Minerals Management Service (MMS) is preparing to open the outer continental shelf offshore Alaska in the North Aleutian basin for a lease sale to be held in 2011. Steps are being taken by the agency to ensure a limited environmental impact if exploratory drilling occurs.

A press release issued by the MMS stated that Lease Sale 214, proposed under the 2007-2012 Oil and Gas Outer Continental Shelf Leasing Program, will begin with an "information-gathering and scooping process," which consists of a Call for Information and a Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.

While the area has been deemed "gas-prone" by MMS, it is relatively unknown if the 5.6 million acre area of the North Aleutian Basin in the southeastern portion of the Bering Sea is oil-bearing.

"Not much opportunity to get estimates of how much oil is there," MMS spokesperson Gary Strasburg told Rigzone.

Some reports indicate the importance of the area for the recovery of an "endangered" whale, and MMS is attempting to ensure those concerned that the agency is taking the necessary steps to examine the area as a potential habitat.

"MMS and the National Marine Mammal Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are collaborating to study the distribution, relative abundance, and habitat use of the endangered North Pacific right whales in the Bering Sea, north of the Aleutian Islands," stated the MMS press release. "The $5 million research program began in the summer of 2007 and will continue over the following three-and-one-half years."

An Alaskan news source stated that the Center for Biological Diversity sued the United States government in 2006 in an attempt to designate the area as a "critical habitat" for the whale. The same organization is now suing to have the North Aleutian basin lease sale cancelled.

MMS stated that this proposed lease sale is simply a proposal.

"With this step MMS begins a more formal information gathering process and continues our process of consulting with local villages, interest groups, including environmental groups, and industry," said MMS Director Randall Luthi in the release. "We encourage all groups to provide extensive comments and information so that we can have a comprehensive and thorough assessment of issues and concerns.

"Over the past 30 years, MMS has funded nearly $300 million for environmental studies related to Alaska waters. Since 2000, we have had 30 - 40 active environmental studies each year offshore Alaska, totaling over $45 million. Eleven more studies have been commissioned this year."

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