In February 2008, ConocoPhillips (COP), Shell Exploration & Production (Shell) and Statoil USA Exploration and Production (Statoil) obtained leases in the federal waters of the Chukchi Sea, and immediately began an integrated ecosystem-based environmental studies program to gather baseline, or pre-exploration, data. COP operated the program during the open-water seasons of 2008 and 2009 on behalf of itself and Shell. In 2010 and 2011, Olgoonik-Fairweather LLC (OLF) operated the Chukchi Sea environmental studies program funded by COP, Shell, and Statoil.
The studies program includes various disciplines of the marine ecosystem including: physical oceanography, chemical oceanography (new in 2010), plankton ecology, benthic ecology (infaunal and epibenthic communities), seabird ecology, marine mammal ecology, pelagic and demersal fisheries, and the hydroacoustic environment. In 2008 and 2009, the program consisted of two prospect-specific study areas for ConocoPhillips and Shell, and in 2010, an additional prospect-specific study area was added for Statoil. The program expanded in 2011 to include a more regional area survey that encompasses the three prospect-specific study areas and Hanna Shoal to the north. The study design was based on the systematic sample and transect grid used in 2008-2010, but on a coarser scale to cover a greater area in a shorter amount of time. To allow for data continuity, the 2008-2010 prospect-specific study areas remain at the finer transect scale.
The overall purpose of the study is to provide to ConocoPhillips, Shell, and Statoil necessary baseline information about the marine environment in their respective lease areas that can be used in applications for permits, in a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance document, and in other documents to help manage these resources. The study will provide valuable information for the regulatory agencies to conduct realistic evaluations on the potential impacts of oil and gas activities and thus issue permits with reasonable stipulations and guidance. Importantly, it will also contribute to the overall knowledge of the northeastern Chukchi Sea marine ecosystem. Future studies in the lease areas may involve additional collaborators including, but not limited to: the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the North Pacific Research Board (NPRB), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), United States Geological Survey (USGS), Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC), Alaska Beluga Whale Committee (ABWC), Ice Seal Commission, and the Alaska Eskimo Walrus Commission.