On Tuesday, President Obama announced he was withdrawing a pristine and ecologically rich region of Alaska from any future oil and gas development. Using section 12 of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, Obama signed a memorandum removing Bristol Bay, a 52,000-square-mile area off Alaska’s southwest coast, in order to “take it off of the bidders block and make sure it is preserved for the future.”
In announcing the move, Obama also called Bristol Bay one of American’s greatest natural resources and “a natural economic engine.” Bristol Bay is the world’s biggest sockeye salmon fishery and provides 40 percent of America’s seafood as part of its annual $2 billion commercial fishing industry, according to the White House.
The White House announcement also stated that the region, otherwise known as the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area, provides habitat for a diverse array of marine species, including sea otters, seals, walruses, Beluga and Killer whales. It is also an important site for Native Americans who have lived there for generations.
Lisa Murkowski, a Republican Senator from Alaska, told the Los Angeles Times she did not object to Obama’s decision “given the lack of interest by industry and the public divide over allowing oil and gas exploration in this area.”
The North Aleutian Basin Outer Continental Shelf has not yet been the site of any oil or gas drilling. A drilling moratorium was put in place there after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and there has been a temporary ban ever since. Tuesday’s announcement puts the moratorium in place in perpetuity.
In 2007, President George W. Bush attempted to open up more than five million acres on the edge of Bristol Bay for future leasing to the oil and gas industry starting in 2011, but Obama withdrew the effort after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.
With the offshore resources protected, attention will now return to an ongoing battle over a massive open-pit mining project in the Bay’s watershed. If allowed to proceed, Pebble Mine would be the largest copper and gold mine in North America. Last month a federal judge made the latest move by dealing a procedural blow to the EPA’s efforts to protect the area.
Earlier in November, those fighting the mine gained their own significant victory when nearly two-thirds of Alaskan voters approved a ballot measure giving Alaska’s state legislature the power to approve or reject Pebble mine. This means that not only will state and federal agencies have to approve it, but so will the state’s legislature, which would first have to conclude that the project would not harm the region’s salmon industry.
According to the group Save Bristol Bay, the proposed Pebble Mine would generate up to 10 billion tons of toxic mine waste that will have to be treated for hundreds of years.