by Craig Weatherby
Back in 2006, the Bush administration proposed lifting a long-standing ban on oil drilling in the North Aleutian Basin off Alaska.
This region includes Bristol Bay—home to the world's largest sockeye salmon run—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 U.S. fields.
Now, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recommended reinstating presidential protections for Bristol Bay from offshore drilling.
The agency's position relates to the proposed 5-Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2010-2015.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is reviewing both the Alaska portions of that current program due to a law suit, as well as this potential new 2010-2015 program that was rushed through by the Bush administration just days before the former President left office.
NOAA's comments assert that, “The proposed timing for the first lease sale scheduled in the North Aleutian Basin (2011) would prevent acquisition of adequate and necessary baseline environmental information needed prior to any oil and gas activities in this area.”
The detailed comments note that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) failed to adequately address the challenges of oil spill cleanup in Arctic and subarctic conditions and that environmental information is lacking to support oil and gas leasing on the current timeline.
We applaud the NOAA comments and hope that the Obama administration will heed the agency's call to protect the region.
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.
It seems insane to risk an irreplaceable source of exceptionally healthful food in return for two weeks worth of oil.
And while the amount of natural gas involved is more substantial, new onshore gas finds have already increased U.S. reserves very dramatically, and extraction of these gas stores will not endanger a fragile, valuable ecosystem.
- U.S. Dept. of Commerce/ NOAA. Sept. 9, 2009. Draft comments on Proposed 5-Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2010-2015. Accessed online at http://www.peer.org/docs/noaa/09_12_10_NOAA_Comments_on_MMS_5_Year_Plan.pdf