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January 2012 Issue

BOEM Embraces Applied Science For Informed Ocean Energy Decisions

By Dr. Alan D. Thornhill
Chief Environmental Officer
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

In March 2010, I joined what is now known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), eventually becoming the first chief environmental officer in November. Over the months, I have had the privilege to work with the world-class scientists at BOEM and the Department of the Interior (DOI) on a wide range of issues affecting the oceans and energy future. I spent 20 years in the conservation community before joining federal service. While this may seem like an odd transition, it underscores the commitment of BOEM and the DOI to elevate the role of science in this new bureau. Balancing America's energy, environmental and economic interests presents many challenges, and I am honored to be working among BOEM's dedicated federal employees, who take this responsibility very seriously.

BOEM's Environmental Science Program
As the scientific backbone of BOEM, the bureau's Environmental Science Program develops, conducts and oversees world-class applied oceanographic, ecological and social science studies to support conventional and renewable energy and marine mineral leasing and oversight on the U.S. OCS. This research is conducted and overseen by scientists and managers in all of BOEM's regions and offices. On topics as diverse as physical oceanography, atmospheric sciences, biology, protected species, social sciences and economics, submerged cultural resources, and environmental fates and effects, BOEM is a leading contributor to the scientific knowledge about the nation's marine and coastal environment, from the Alaskan Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific—an area of about 1.7 billion acres in total.

BOEM's science program is unique in its applied nature; any scientific study undertaken by BOEM must be tied to supporting OCS energy and mineral activities and decisions. This ensures that each project has a clear purpose and rationale, as opposed to more open-ended scientific research that may or may not have an immediate, direct application.

The Environmental Science Program undergoes a rigorous annual process to develop, review and approve the list of new studies that will begin in a two- to three-year period. The process begins when guidance is passed from BOEM headquarters to our scientists throughout the nation. Study concepts and profiles are compiled into a national studies development plan, which is presented to and reviewed by BOEM's OCS Scientific Committee. BOEM scientists incorporate this guidance to develop the study designs and move to the procurement phase. We refer to the final list of new studies as the National Studies List.

Adapting to Change
It is critically important to note that the Environmental Studies Program supports adaptive management approaches: If a critical need arises, a study can be modified, added, delayed or moved ahead early as necessary. For example, many studies underway in the Gulf of Mexico were modified during and after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to incorporate assessments of any potential impacts and changes to baseline conditions in the affected area.

By continually monitoring and assessing any stipulations or mitigation measures that are based upon studies results, BOEM is positioned to change or strengthen environmental requirements at a moment's notice. A clear-cut example of this is seen in BOEM's studies of deep-sea corals in the Gulf of Mexico. When it became apparent (due to new study results) that extensive deep-sea coral habitats were not being included in environmental reviews because they occurred slightly shallower than existing review triggers, BOEM moved quickly to notify operators of new guidance to avoid these sensitive communities. This type of reevaluation of the effectiveness of BOEM guidance is continual and vitally important to the protection of our nation's precious offshore environments and resources.

Working offshore is challenging. This is particularly evident in the harsh conditions of the Alaskan Arctic. Therefore, it continues to be a high priority to collaborate with other federal, state and academic partners to leverage funding as well as physical and personnel resources to conduct the research BOEM requires.

BOEM works extensively through the National Ocean Partnership Program and on a study-by-study basis with federal partners when our needs align. If there is expertise we need to help us balance America's energy, environmental and economic interests, we will find it and tap into it.

BOEM's Values and Vision
It is important to mention BOEM's commitment to scientific integrity. I had the honor of working with a team of exceptional scientists from across DOI bureaus when I led the development of the department's Scientific Integrity Policy, which was published in February 2011. This policy lays out clear guidance for all DOI employees and contractors on what is expected of them as scientists and managers. Scientific and scholarly information considered in BOEM and DOI decision making must be robust, of the highest quality, and the result of as rigorous scientific and scholarly processes as can be achieved. The policy codifies that requirement and reaffirms our commitment to maintaining integrity in DOI scientific and scholarly activities.

I am proud to be part of the team that helps provide essential science to inform decisions about the vast offshore resources managed by BOEM and the DOI on behalf of the American people. Working in concert, BOEM scientific personnel, programs and partnerships strengthen our scientific presence and advance the critical missions of the bureau and the DOI.

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