Bristol Bay: Obama blocks drilling where no one really wanted to drill anyway

President Obama has made Alaska's Bristol Bay off limits to oil and gas drilling. Green groups applauded the move, but the oil and gas industry's response was muted. A sign of compromise? Sort of.

Environmental Protection Agency/Reuters/File
Sockeye salmon are seen in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Most proponents of oil and gas drilling didn’t object to Obama taking Bristol Bay off the table, but did question his rationale and pressed the president to open up other federal waters to drilling.

President Obama blocked oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Bristol Bay Tuesday, his latest push for conservation and environmental protection during his final two years in office.

Environmentalists cheered the move, but industry’s response? Meh.

Energy firms’ relative acceptance of the ban is perhaps a small sign of compromise amid the age-old balancing act of economic growth with environmental conservation. But there’s another explanation for indifference toward this particular restriction: Oil and gas firms have shown little if any interest in developing Bristol Bay in the first place. Even pro-drilling Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska shrugged off Obama’s move to close the bay to oil and gas leasing.

“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,” Ms. Murkowski said in a statement Wednesday.

Obama’s action protects 52,000 square miles of water off Alaska's coast – an area roughly the size of Florida. The bay is north of the Alaska peninsula, which points west from the mainland toward the Aleutian islands.

“It’s something that’s too precious for us to just be putting out to the highest bidder,” Obama said in a video message Tuesday.

The bay has never been the site of drilling, in part because locals have fought to protect Bristol Bay since it was opened for leasing under US President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Leasing never led to oil development because of litigation, and the Exxon Valdez spill further soured talk of drilling there. In 2010 Obama cancelled the 2011 lease sale in Bristol Bay, and the decision Tuesday makes Obama’s 2010 move indefinite.

Most proponents of oil and gas drilling didn’t object to Obama taking Bristol Bay off the table, but did question his rationale and pressed the president to open up other federal waters to drilling.

“Although it might not be prudent today to consider oil and gas leasing in Bristol Bay, I don’t understand why the President would choose to address this issue in such absolute terms,” Alaska Oil and Gas Association President and CEO Kara Moriarty told Politico.

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Echoing Ms. Moriarty’s concerns was Murkowski, who said the Obama administration is blocking drilling in other parts of Alaska that oil companies are more interested in exploration.

“We are not asking to produce everywhere – but right now, we are not being allowed to produce anywhere,” Murkowski said. “What we need are decisions to open lands and waters in Alaska, not the familiar and frustrating pattern of shutting everything down,” Murkowski said.

Obama’s Bristol Bay decision comes weeks before the federal government releases a draft plan deciding which federal waters it will open to energy development.

Federal officials had valued Bristol Bay's potential oil and gas at $7.7 billion. But in the time it would take to recover those fossil fuels, commercial fishing in the area will rake in $80 billion, according to outgoing Sen. Mark Begich (D) of Alaska.

“Much of Alaska's coastal waters, especially in the promising Arctic, are open for oil and gas exploration and development,” Mr. Begich said. “I stand with the majority of Alaskans who agree that protecting Bristol Bay's salmon fishery is a top priority.”

Bristol Bay supports $2 billion in commercial fishing annually, according to the White House, and provides the US with 40 percent of its wild-caught seafood. The region is home to several threatened species, including sea otters, seals, walruses, Beluga and Killer whales, and the endangered North Pacific Right Whale.

Environmentalists lauded the decision as Obama’s latest move to cement his environmental legacy.

“Bristol Bay is a special place – a sensitive and precious natural resource that must be preserved for its abundant fishery, its incomparable beauty, and its vast and productive habitat,” Elizabeth Thompson, president of Environmental Defense Action Fund, an environmental group, said in a statement. “In protecting the Bay ecosystem from drilling, the President has delivered once again on his promise to protect the special and irreplaceable natural treasures of the American landscape.”

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