Oil exploration leases that threatened the fragile, bountiful Bristol Bay region are placed on hold for seven years
by Craig Weatherby

The boats, trucks, and planes that get our fish from the ocean to your door rely on oil or gas... and so do most of the world's people and economies.

So oil must be found and extracted from somewhere... until the country implements cleaner energy sources. 

And for the economy and energy security alike, the U.S. probably should bear its share of the risk and reward for getting oil from under the ground. 

But it just doesn't make sense to drill in some places, given the risk-reward calculation... that is, the value and irreplacabilty of the threatened resource versus the value and duration of the area's likely oil reserves. 

No geologists believe that Bristol Bay holds huge amounts of oil, and this unique eco system is both highly valuable and utterly irreplaceable.

Accordingly, we and many others were dismayed when the Bush Administration opened Alaska's precious Bristol Bay to oil and gas exploration in 2007.

Bristol Bay lease never made sense
This decision flew in the face of common sense, because Bristol Bay is home to the world's biggest sockeye salmon runs, which could be devastated by oil spills (see “Alaskan ‘Fish Basket' Opened to Oil and Gas Leasing”).

Salmon aside, Bristol Bay also supports myriad creatures critical to the ocean food chain as well as to commercial, recreational and subsistence fishers.

Now, the Obama Administration has reversed that decision, and will instead protect Bristol Bay's fragile, irreplaceable ecosystem and wildlife... even as it opens other offshore areas to exploration or drilling.

Yesterday, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced an expansion of oil and gas exploration on in new areas such as the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, and increasing exploration in frontier areas such as the Mid and South Atlantic Ocean.

Secretary Salazar expressed their goals in a press release: “Our strategy calls for developing new areas offshore, exploring frontier areas, and protecting places that are too special to drill.”

Alaskan waters are not entirely excluded, since the Administration supports exploratory drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in the Arctic Ocean.

But the big news for us
and lovers of Alaska's wild waters and sockeye salmonis that President Obama is withdrawing Bristol Bay from consideration for oil and gas development through 2017. 

Nor does the Administration propose exploration or development in areas near California, Oregon and Washington or in the North Atlantic.

As with the Administration's plan to build more nuclear energy plants, many observers see these moves as a way to bring more conservative congresspersons on board for the Administration's still-unformed energy bill, which is likely to include alternative energy and carbon reduction measures.

Estimates of the oil to be gained annually from the new leases range from as little as two percent of America's yearly oil consumption to 10 percent or more.

The map below shows the "Newly Protected" Bristol Bay area in mauve, and the new Arctic "Areas Open" for exploration in yellow. To see the full size map, click here.