President Withdraws Bristol Bay, Alaska, From Consideration for Oil, Gas Exploration

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By Alan Kovski

Dec. 16 — President Obama announced Dec. 16 he was blocking the possibility of leasing parts of Bristol Bay, Alaska, for oil and gas exploration and production.

Obama said he was exercising his authority under Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, codified as 43 U.S.C. 1341(a). The section allows the president to “withdraw from disposition” any unleased lands on the Outer Continental Shelf.

“I took this action to make sure that one of America's greatest natural resources and a massive economic engine not only for Alaska but America, Bristol Bay, is preserved for future generations,” Obama said in a video statement posted on YouTube.

He described Bristol Bay as supporting about $2 billion in commercial fishing and supplying America with about 40 percent of its wild-caught seafood. It has supported Native Americans in the region for centuries, he said.

“It is a beautiful natural wonder, and it's something that's too precious to be putting out to the highest bidder,” Obama said.

Industry Disinterest Cited 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), often a critic of Obama administration energy policy, questioned the way the decision was made but not the substance of it.

“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 released hours after the decision.

“I think we all recognize that these are some of our state’s richest fishing waters,” she said. “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.”

The Interior Department hasn't leased any part of Bristol Bay for oil and gas exploration. The department didn't include the bay in its latest five-year leasing plan, the 2012-2017 plan released three years ago.

Oil and gas associations didn't immediately react, possibly reflecting the disinterest Murkowski cited.

Pew Charitable Trusts Applauds Announcement 

The Pew Charitable Trusts welcomed the decision and said it had “worked with the people of Bristol Bay to secure permanent protection for their rich culture and healthy fisheries.”

Marilyn Heiman, U.S. Arctic director for the Pew Charitable Trusts, was quoted as saying, “The leadership shown in protecting a place that is so important to the people of Alaska is one of the best decisions this administration has made to protect our oceans. While many fisheries around the globe are declining, Bristol Bay’s well-managed fisheries are some of the most productive in the world, and are worthy of protection.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at akovski@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com