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Originally published Sunday, January 2, 2011 at 4:00 PM

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Let science inform Arctic drilling decisions

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar needs to honor a commitment to have the best science and research guide decisions on oil and gas exploration in the Arctic Ocean.

INTERIOR Secretary Ken Salazar must not back away from a pledge to seek out the best science and research before making decisions on oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

The wisdom of not rushing into a fragile environment is summed up in two words: Deepwater Horizon.

After the epic disaster in the Gulf last April, Salazar said the best environmental information available would guide future offshore-drilling pursuits. Science would inform decisions on oil and gas development in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, Salazar announced.

Meanwhile, Interior is processing an application by Shell Oil. The U.S. Geological Survey is expected to have a once-delayed report out around the anniversary of the explosion and catastrophic hemorrhaging of oil.

Salazar might recall this Washington Post report last May: "The Interior Department exempted BP's calamitous Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environmental-impact analysis last year, according to government documents, after three reviews of the area concluded that a massive oil spill was unlikely."

Thirty-eight members of Congress, rallied by Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, and two colleagues, sent Salazar a letter asking him to honor his commitment. They noted decision-making proceeds without basic scientific information, and with serious questions about oil-spill-response capacities in hostile climate conditions.

The U.S.G.S. study under way is a review of gaps in current information and a summary of what research is necessary to mitigate risks.

The need-to-know list is lengthy regarding mammals and seismic activities; the cumulative impacts of development, infrastructure, and maintenance activities offshore and onshore on ecosystems, landscapes, seascapes, water quality, seafloor and land stability, and subsistence hunting and fishing; oil-spill response and climate-change considerations.

In 2008, the U.S.G.S. made a broad estimate of the oil and gas potential in the Arctic across international boundaries. Beyond the vastness of the resource, the conclusion was that 84 percent would be found offshore.

No good reason exists to rush ahead without the best information to guide decisions in a fragile, complex environment. The Interior secretary was right the first time.

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