In a move that he refers to as “an orderly, scientifically grounded approach,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered scientists at the US Geological Survey (USGS) to determine by Oct. 1 whether more research is needed before additional acreage in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas is opened to the industry.

The scientists will review the existing data and will decide what else needs to be studied to determine the environmental impact of drilling as well as studying the industry’s ability to respond to spills in ice-clogged waters and address climate changes issues that are putting the area’s delicate ecology under stress. Concurrently, the US Minerals Management Service (MMS) is holding town meetings in areas impacted by the potential leases and is also studying Arctic wildlife ecology.

“The Chukchi and Beaufort seas may hold significant oil and gas reserves,” Salazar said. “We also know they hold rich fisheries, are home to wildlife, are important to Alaska Native villages, and present development challenges that are unique to the harsh conditions of the Arctic.”

Already Shell is active in the Chukchi Sea, with plans to drill three exploratory wells this summer. This will hopefully provide the industry and government with a better idea about the prospectivity of the area.

If there’s something to marvel at here, it’s that environmental groups are applauding the “continued study” approach, although somehow they’re not comfortable with the USGS conducting the study and want an independent group like the National Research Council to do the research. A spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior told the Associated Press that the USGS is an independent body and shouldn’t be viewed as having any particular agenda in this case. Having the MMS involved is a larger issue, a fact that I find amusing since oil and gas companies are often at odds with this agency. But Stan Senner of the Ocean Conservancy told the Associated Press that the research shouldn’t be carried out strictly by government scientists. “In this case, we’ve got the Minerals Management Service that is the agency that promotes and regulates oil and gas leasing, and we’d rather have a completely independent body take a look at what the science is.”

Regardless of which scientists are studying the area, more should be known about the need for continued research by October. Meanwhile, I hope they enjoy the long days and the giant mosquitoes.