ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The federal agency that oversees offshore oil leasing has received comments about drilling the Arctic Ocean from a surprise source – NASA.
The Alaskan Department of Energy reports that the Office of Ocean Energy Management has asked for comment when the Trump administration considers a 2019 lease sale in the Beaufort Sea.
A letter from NASA says Beaufort Sea drilling rigs may be affected by launches of its unique line of high-latitude rockets.
Spacial management funds the Poker Flat Research Range outside Fairbanks. The range of high-latitude rockets for decades has been operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"What we are known for doing research on the dawn," said Poker Flat director Kathe Rich.
Scientists launch rockets that pass through the aurora and sometimes land great distances from the launch site.
"If we are looking for something that is well north, it will descend into the Beaufort Sea or the Arctic Ocean, one or the other," Rich said.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in April sent a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimating that 70 rocket parts have landed in the Beaufort Sea since the 1960s.
NASA expressed concern that the future development of oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea may result in the need to protect additional people and property during launches.
Because scientists use high-performance rockets nowadays, more could land on Beaufort, according to NASA.
The chance of rocket parts colliding with oil rigs is extremely unlikely, Rich said. Scientists would not launch them if they thought people or infrastructure would be in danger. Most likely, more Beaufort Sea activities could limit research opportunities, Rich said.
"The downrange area we have may be like sticking a needle with all the various things we need to avoid," Rich said. "So every time you have to add something else can be avoided, this can result in fewer launch opportunities for us."
Rich is optimistic that NASA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will come to an agreement. Research is important because the aurora is like a visual manifestation of the energy of the sun entering the upper atmosphere of the Earth. This energy can affect the communications of the cellular or the electric network
Agency spokesman John Callahan said by e-mail that the agency will work with NASA to explore the best options.
"We are happy they talked about safe operations in Beaufort," Callahan said. "It's a great example of good lines of communication between federal agencies here."