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The Nation

Alaskan bay may see new drilling

January 10, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Tuesday lifted a ban on new oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay, a decision that angered environmentalists and could provoke a battle with the Democratic-controlled Congress over energy policy.

The 5.6 million acres of the bay on the west side of the Alaska Peninsula just north of the Aleutian Islands have been off-limits for energy exploration since 1989, after the Exxon Valdez spill.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, in announcing the lifting of the ban, said the move would "enhance America's energy security," and pledged a thorough environmental review before any drilling began.

Environmentalists warned that Bush's action could endanger an area rich in marine life, as well as signal a new assault on the long-standing drilling moratorium off much of the U.S. coast, including the West Coast.

"This is an area that is too special to open to drilling," said Sierra Club lobbyist Melinda Pierce, who vowed to lobby Congress to restore the drilling ban.

Environmental groups describe Bristol Bay as home to the world's largest sockeye salmon run, large pollock and cod fisheries, and endangered stellar sea lions and whales.

"Why risk ruining a billion-dollar fishery, a valuable sport-hunting and fishing industry, a critical resource for Native Alaskans and one of the most important places for marine wildlife populations in the Bering Sea?" asked Bill Eichbaum of the World Wildlife Fund.

Though much of the nation's coast -- except for large sections of the Gulf of Mexico -- is off-limits to new drilling under congressional and presidential moratoriums, the congressional ban on new drilling in Bristol Bay was not renewed in 2003 at the urging of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

That left the presidential moratorium in place -- until Tuesday.

Stevens praised Bush's action, saying it would help the region's struggling economy.

"Imported farmed salmon, high energy costs and the area's remoteness have limited economic development and contributed to high poverty in the region," he said in a statement. "The possibility of oil and gas development in Bristol Bay presents a series of new opportunities to the people of this region."

No estimate was immediately available on how much oil and gas lie beneath the area that would be opened. Drilling is not expected to begin before 2010.

Bush's action is "a good initial step in what I hope will be a wholesale rethinking of energy priorities by this Congress and the president himself," said Rep. John E. Peterson (R-Pa.), who has pushed for opening more coastal waters to natural gas exploration.

But Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, a senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that allowing drilling in "one of our nation's most sensitive fisheries underscores the administration's ongoing commitment to extending our addiction to oil."

Bush's action comes a month after the Republican-controlled Congress, in one of its last acts, voted to open about 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for exploration.

The administration also announced that it was increasing the royalty rates paid by oil and gas companies for drilling in deepwater leases, drawing praise from congressional Democrats.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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