Obama makes Alaska’s Bristol Bay off-limits for oil, gas activity

US President Barack Obama placed Bristol Bay off-limits for future oil and gas leasing, extending a temporary withdrawal he imposed in 2010 that was due to expire in 2017. The Dec. 16 announcement effectively excludes the entire North Aleutian Basin from consideration in the new 5-year Outer Continental Shelf program the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has begun to prepare.

“The North Aleutian Basin Planning Area that includes Bristol Bay consists of approximately 32.5 million acres, a portion of which was leased in the mid-1980s but never developed due to litigation,” the White House said.

The previous administration set a new lease sale for 2011 in motion that would have opened about 5.6 million acres—about one fifth of the planning area—for drilling, it added.

The White House called Bristol Bay one of the world’s most valuable fisheries, and said it helps provide 40% of the nation’s wild-caught seafood and supports a $2 billion/year fishing industry. The area also is an economic engine for tourism in Alaska, driving $100 million/year in recreational fishing and tourism activity, it said.

US Sec. of the Interior Sally Jewell applauded Obama’s move. “It caps decades of work from the community to protect the region’s economic and cultural heritage,” she said. “With its pristine waters, rich fisheries and strong tourist economy, Bristol Bay is a treasure that should be off limits for oil and gas development.”

Jewell cited local residents’ efforts to protect Bristol Bay, especially the late Harold (Harvey) Samuelsen, a leading commercial fisherman who championed both the protection of the bay and its fisheries and the economic well-being of fishermen, native communities, and other Alaskans. “Today’s action is in many ways a result of their passion for and stewardship of this special place and puts the threat of future drilling finally to rest,” she said.

Murkowski responds

US Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alas.), the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s ranking minority member, said she would not object to Obama’s decision at this time, given the oil and gas industry’s lack of interest in the area and the public division over oil and gas exploration there.

“I think we all recognize that these are some of our state’s richest fishing waters,” she said on Dec. 16. “What I do not understand is why this decision could not be made within the context of the administration’s upcoming plan for offshore leasing—or at least announced at the same time.”

Murkowski also expressed strong concerns that the Obama administration is still dramatically out of step with Alaska’s most pressing needs.

“It is incredibly frustrating that this administration looks at Alaska—with oil production at a fraction of the level it could be at, and with low oil prices about to force steep across-the-board budget cuts—and decides that conservation is our most pressing need,” she said. “We are not asking to produce everywhere—but right now, we are not being allowed to produce anywhere.”

More offshore areas have been closed to oil and gas leasing than have been opened during Obama’s tenure, National Ocean Industry Association Pres. Randall B. Luthi said on Dec. 17. “Zero truly new acres of federal offshore areas have been opened over the past 6 years,” he declared.

A former US Minerals Management Service director who oversaw OCS activities late in George W. Bush’s second term, Luthi said more than 85% of the US OCS remains unavailable for oil and gas leasing. “It is disappointing to witness this continued pattern of unilaterally removing areas from consideration before fully understanding the amount and potential of energy resources they hold,” he said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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