Federal agency taking comments as it looks at possible lease sale in Arctic waters off Alaska

A federal agency is testing the waters on a possible lease sale in the Alaska Arctic.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced Friday it is opening a 45-day comment period both to gather information on areas in the Beaufort Sea that have the most promising oil and gas potential, and to learn more about environmentally sensitive habitats and subsistence activities within the planning area.

The planning area covers approximately 64.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast.

Bureau spokesman John Callahan said this is the first step in a long process, and no decision has been made on whether to go ahead with a lease sale. If a sale is held, the agency is looking at it happening in 2017.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, called Friday's announcement an important step toward developing the "massive" oil and gas resources in the Arctic Ocean and keeping oil flowing through the trans-Alaska pipeline for decades.

"Residents of the North Slope have balanced responsible oil development and subsistence hunting for decades," he said in a release. "I am confident we can do so again in the Beaufort Sea and encourage industry and whaling groups to come to the table so we can make good decisions going forward."

Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said her group does not want to see more drilling in the Beaufort, citing the uncertainty of the arctic climate and lack of scientific information about the Arctic Ocean.

"The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are central to life in coastal communities, provide important habitat for countless species of wildlife and play a vital role in regulating the world's climate," she said in a statement.

Earlier this year, Royal Dutch Shell announced it was suspending operations in the Alaska Arctic for 2014, at least. The company said the decision was based in part on a federal appeals court ruling that found the federal government conducted a flawed environmental review before selling $2.7 billion in oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea in 2008.

The U.S. Interior Department has since laid out a timeline for completion of a new environmental review, targeting early next year for the final decision.