Decision would threaten sustainable fisheries, but produce just two weeks' worth of oil

by Craig Weatherby

Last week brought disturbing news for people who care about the future of Alaska's wild salmon and the fragile ocean web that supports these and other sustainably harvested fish.

Alaska's sockeye salmon are already under threat from gold and mineral mines proposed for the headwaters of Bristol Bay: a key habitat that's also home to a wealth of diverse wildlife (see “Opposition to Saltmon-Risking Mine Grows” and “Proposed Mine Threatens Bristol Bay”).

Oil and gas royalties to US go unpaid

A respected whistle blower says the US Interior department has failed to collect billions of dollars in oil and gas exploration leases on public lands.

The New York Times reported recently on the saga of a longtime auditor whose findings of fraud by energy companies and lax Federal oversight led to elimination of his job.

Key Republicans have also expressed dismay over the Interior Department's failure to account for money owed the US Treasury from energy leases.

The Times story included these alarming observations and quotes:

“Republican leaders on the House Government Reform Committee, which has been reviewing the flawed leases, recently accused Interior officials of perpetuating a ‘culture of irresponsibility and lack of accountability' at the agency.”

“The Interior Department ‘clearly doesn't view their responsibility as maximizing revenue to the American people for resources that belong to the American people,' said Representative Darrell E. Issa, a California Republican who oversaw hearings on the flawed leases. ‘We don't have a system that accurately tells us how much oil is being taken out of the ground.'”

In other words, energy companies and their Federal overseers cannot be trusted to pay the royalties due to the US treasury. And we doubt they  can ensure the safety of precious sockeye salmon.

Confirming the accuracy of recent rumors, a spokesman for President Bush confirmed on Sunday that the chief executive is considering lifting a ban on oil and gas drilling in federally-controlled waters off Alaska's Bristol Bay, home to the world's largest sockeye salmon run.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 led to a ban on leasing in the North Aleutian Basin, which includes Bristol Bay and part of the southeastern Bering Sea.

The proposed lease grids contain an estimated 200 million barrels of crude oil, which is about what the US imports every 16 days, plus 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or one-quarter of one year's gas production from US fields.

In response, fishing groups, conservation organizations and Native tribes sent an open letter to the President on November 29, urging him to maintain protection for Bristol Bay.

These groups reflect the comments submitted to regulators by the major environmental organizations in opposition to leasing in this environmentally sensitive part of the Outer Continental Shelf: a critical plankton, fish and shellfish habitat that extends between three miles and 200 miles offshore.

In addition to threatening the world's largest wild run of sockeye salmon, spills in the area could damage other fish, coastal wetlands, lagoons and sheltered bays that serve as migratory hubs and staging or wintering grounds for millions of waterfowl and shorebirds. The region also overlaps with critical habitat for endangered right whales and sea lions.

Congressional critics call the move an irresponsible sop to energy companies, which skew their political contributions toward advocates of inadequately regulated development from both sides of the political aisle, but mostly from sparsely populated Western states, which are more dependent on income from mining.

We should note that the Interior Department cites support among several local and tribal governments who hope that drilling will deliver economic growth, and estimates that energy development in the basin's federal waters could produce $7.7 billion in oil and gas production and up to 11,500 jobs.

However, even if that many jobs materialize, they will last only as long as the few years fossil fuels are expected to last. And that's sure to be a very short time, compared with the much longer-term economic benefits of Bristol Bay sockeye and other potentially affected fisheries.

Local opposition leaps into action, seeks nationwide support

The Alaska Marine Conservation Council (AMCC)whose membership includes fishermen, subsistence harvesters, marine scientists, conservationists, small business owners, and familieshas worked for years to protect the region and leads local opposition.

According to AMCC executive director Eric Siy, “If protected and properly managed, these waters can continue providing livelihoods and recreation for generations to come.”

Federal studies suggest that the areas considered for leasing would likely suffer one or more major oil spills and a number of smaller spills over the course of the oil-extraction period.

Worse yet, recovery of spilled oil would be impractical in the rough seas, ice, and strong tides and currents characteristic of Bristol Bay and the southeastern Bering Sea.

The disparity between the short-term economic benefit to distant interests and the long-term risk to sustainable fisheries led the Council and various fishing groups, Native interests and conservation groups to send this joint letter to President Bush on November 29.

Alaska Marine Conservation Council's Open letter to President Bush

Re: Maintain the Presidential Withdrawal Prohibiting Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing in Alaska's Bristol Bay

Dear Mr. President,

We, the undersigned, urge you in the strongest possible terms not to lift the presidential withdrawal prohibiting offshore oil and gas development in the North Aleutian Basin, which encompasses Bristol Bay and a portion of the southeastern Bering Sea.

The presidential withdrawal for Bristol Bay, currently in effect until 2012, serves a vital role in protecting the world-class marine resources, sea life, fishing livelihoods, and resource-dependent coastal  communities of the region from the potentially devastating ecological, economic, social, and cultural impacts of offshore oil and gas development.

We urge you to continue the history of protection for what is arguably one of the most important and sensitive areas of the nation's Outer Continental Shelf. We also request your help in working with the Congress to reinstate the bi-partisan moratorium on offshore oil and gas development in Bristol Bay that had, until 2003, been in effect for more than a decade. These protections have been in place because of the great risk to Bristol Bay posed by oil and gas development. The presidential withdrawal now stands as the last line of defense for this irreplaceable resource.


Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association

Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association

Alaska Marine Conservation Council


Alaska Wilderness League

Aleknagik Natives Ltd.

Aleknagik Natives Ltd.

Bristol Bay Driftnetters Association

Bristol Bay Native Association

Chignik Lagoon Native Corp

Chignik Bay Tribal Council

Choggiung, Ltd.

Cook Inletkeeper

Crewmen's Association

Curyung Tribal Council

Kijik Native Corporation


Native Village of Perryville

Newhalen Tribal Council

Northern Alaska Environmental Center


Pacific Environment


Sierra Club

The Wilderness Society

United Catcher Boats

Vision Quest Adventures

World Wildlife Fund

Representatives from Togiak, Manokotak, Port Heiden,
Chignik Lake, Chignik River,
Dillingham and Nondalton

What you can do

The most effective step anyone can take is to write to your Senators and Congressional Representative, voicing opposition to this short-sighted move.

To get contact information for your Senators and Congressional Representative, go to and