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Three things tend to dominate the character of Alaska: Its exquisite environment, its rich fishing industry and, more recently, its abundance of fossil fuels. President Obama has chosen to support the first two at the expense of the third.
On Dec. 16, Obama said he was removing Bristol Bay and neighboring waters from consideration for oil leases. The bay is situated on the state’s southwestern coast just north of the long Alaska peninsula that tapers down to become the Aleutian Islands. It covers 52,000 square miles, about the size of Florida.
Bristol Bay has supported native Alaskans for centuries, teeming with many forms of sea life, including the endangered North Pacific right whale, killer whales, beluga, halibut, crab, as well as the one of the world’s largest populations of sockeye salmon.
Obama said the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 authorizes him, as president, to remove the bay from leasing to oil and gas companies for exploration and development. Only a subsequent president could lift the ban. A White House statement said that under a five-year program that ends in 2017, 15 potential lease sales are scheduled in neighboring areas of the North Aleutian Basin.
“It’s something that’s too precious for us to be putting out to the highest bidder,” Obama said in an online video message. "It supports about $2 billion in the commercial fishing industry. It supplies America with 40 percent of its wild-caught seafood.”
Oil leases for Bristol Bay had been sold there three decades ago, but they were bought back in 1995 for $95 million, at taxpayer expense, after the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound off Alaska’s southeastern coast. However, energy companies have shown little interest in any of the leases that will become available in 2017.
Marilyn Heiman, the US Arctic director for the Pew Charitable Trusts, told the Associated Press, that many fisheries around the world are not being properly maintained, but Alaskans are managing Bristol Bay very well, making it one of the most productive sources of seafood and thus deserving of government protection.
The World Wildlife Fund agreed. “The administration’s decision to protect Bristol Bay is a huge win for both Bristol Bay fishermen and the region’s coastal communities,” said Margaret Williams, managing director of the group’s Arctic program.
Alaska’s governor, Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-independent, said he’d work cooperatively with the federal government on development of oil and gas in his state, but agreed that “Bristol Bay … is not that place.”
Even Obama’s official political opposition in the state had little negative to say about the decision, as Sen. Lisa Murkowsky, the Alaska Republican, made clear.
“Given the lack of interest by industry and the public divide over allowing oil and gas exploration in this area, I am not objecting to this decision at this time,” Murkowski said in a statement. “I think we all recognize that these are some of our state’s richest fishing waters.”
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com