Ted Danson testifies in Alaska on Arctic drilling

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -November 10, 2010

The longtime environmental activist and ocean advocate testified before the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which is reviewing a lease sale in the Chukchi Sea, the body of water shared with Russia off Alaska's northwest shore.

Environmental and Alaska Native groups bitterly oppose drilling in Arctic waters, which lack a deep-water port and other infrastructure that could be useful for cleanup of a major spill, especially with the region's notoriously bad weather, winter darkness and threat of ice much of the year.

Drilling critics contend that not enough is known about ocean currents, navigation hazards and habits of marine wildlife including endangered bowhead whales, walrus, polar bears and the prey of bears, ice seals.

Danson, who is in Alaska filming the movie "Everybody Loves Whales" with actress Drew Barrymore, told regulators that scientific studies should be done before any development or exploratory drilling.

"If you had done the science to begin with, maybe you would have said, 'You know what? Don't drill here, drill there. It has less impact on the environment, and you can still get your oil,"' he said.

Danson spoke five days after a trip to the Inupiat Eskimo community of Barrow, America's northernmost city, where he had a discussion with Edward Itta, mayor of the North Slope Borough.

"The people he represents have been lifted up economically from oil money into a place where they can live in a much more sustainable way," he said. "And at the same time, their spiritual and cultural life depends on whaling, bowhead whale, and they feel that may or may not be in jeopardy from this drilling."

Danson is a board member of Oceana, which advocates spending $20 million annually over five years for scientific research ahead of exploratory drilling.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management held the hearing as it conducts a court-ordered environmental review for a 2008 lease sale in the Chukchi Sea.

The federal agency that preceded the bureau, the Minerals Management Service, issued 487 leases after receiving high bids totaling $2.7 billion. A subsidiary of Shell Oil accounted for most of the bidding.

Environmental and Alaska Native and environmental groups sued, saying required environmental work hadn't been done. A federal judge agreed in part and said regulators hadn't properly considered the effects of natural gas development in the Chukchi Sea.

At least 78 people signed up to testify at Tuesday's hearing. Those representing Alaska businesses dependent on the oil industry said millions of dollars have been spent on studies in support of offshore Arctic drilling. Both Alaska and the country need additional supplies of domestic oil, they said.

Shell, a major leaseholder in Arctic waters, has said drilling can be done safely in relatively shallow Arctic waters. They also have said that a spill could be contained and cleaned up by response vessels the company would stage with a drilling rig.

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