Obama Protects Bristol Bay While GOP Pushes to Drill in Alaska Wildlife Refuge

Does the president’s move signal opposition to controversial Arctic energy and mining projects?

(Photo: Nick Hall/Getty Images)

Dec 17, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

President Obama has permanently banned oil and gas exploration in Alaska waters that support a $2 billion fishing industry and supply 40 percent of the country’s wild-caught seafood.

In a video posted late Tuesday, the president announced that he was indefinitely extending a temporary ban on energy leasing in Bristol Bay, in the Bering Sea off Alaska’s southwest peninsula. The ban had been set to expire in 2017. “One of America’s greatest natural resources and a massive economic engine not only for Alaska but for America, Bristol Bay is preserved for future generations,” Obama said in the video.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, did not strongly protest President Obama’s action, although she questioned its timing. “Given the lack of interest by industry and the public divide over allowing oil and gas exploration in this area, I am not objecting to this decision at this time,” Murkowski said in a statement. “I think we all recognize that these are some of our state’s richest fishing waters.”

The White House could be sending at least two messages by timing the announcement this way. The first seems meant for Alaska’s congressional delegation. Murkowski, who becomes chair of the powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee next year, has made it clear since the November elections that opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for energy extraction will be among her top priorities in the new Congress. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, recently cosponsored a bill in the House to permit oil drilling in the refuge.

The president may also be signaling opposition to Pebble Mine, a proposed open-pit gold-and-copper mine that would be sited at the headwaters of two waterways flowing into Bristol Bay, the Kvichak and Nugashak rivers. Both are in the heart of salmon spawning grounds that feed into Bristol Bay.

In early December, a federal judge responded to a complaint from the mine’s backers by ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to cease evaluating what impact the mine’s dredging and filling activities would have on the area’s fisheries. Legal actions on the injunction will extend into early 2015.

Obama credited the efforts of local community groups in protecting the bay.

“Because of the great work that was done by local communities, native Alaskans, folks who cared about making sure that we preserved this natural wonder for generations to come, we were able to take action that is going to take it off the bidder’s block and make sure that it is preserved in the future,” he said.