President Obama Bans Drilling Lease Sales in Bristol Bay

President Obama today extended an executive action that puts Bristol Bay off-limits to oil and gas development. 

“This withdrawal prevents consideration of this area for any oil or gas leasing for purposes of exploration, development or production,” Obama explained in a video the White House posted on YouTube. From his desk  in the Oval Office, he extolled the purity of Bristol Bay.

“It supplies America with 40 percent of its wild-caught seafood. It is a beautiful, natural wonder. And it’s something too precious for us to be just putting out to the highest bidder,” he said.

Bristol Bay was already protected under an executive withdrawal. Obama signed one in 2010 that was due to expire in 2017. The new measure extends that  indefinitely.

Dillingham resident Robin Samuelsen, who has fished the bay for decades, could hardly believe the news.

“Well, I had to watch the president’s video on the Internet about five times. I’m elated. Bristol Bay needs protection. We have a phenomenal, world-class fishery for salmon here,” he said.

The White House press release says the action honors the legacy of Harvey Samuelsen. who fought to protect the Bay from drilling for years. Robin Samuelsen says that was his dad.

“My father passed away about 10 years ago,” Samuelsen said. “But you know it’s a clear day here in Dillingham and I’m looking up at the sky and I can see him smiling.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she doesn’t object to the president’s decision. But in a written statement she shows no enthusiasm for it. She says the industry lacks interest in the area anyway, and she questions why the president is making the announcement now rather than with the release of his regular five-year plan for off-shore leasing. She says everyone agrees on the area’s value for fishing, but she takes issue with  Obama’s perspective.

“It is incredibly frustrating that this administration looks at Alaska – with oil production at a fraction of the level it could be at, and with low oil prices about to force steep across-the-board budget cuts – and decides that conservation is our most pressing need,” she said in her press release.  “We are not asking to produce everywhere – but right now, we are not being allowed to produce anywhere.”

Samuelsen and other fishermen say Bristol Bay certainly needs the protection. The federal government has repeatedly removed barriers to oil and gas leasing in the bay, and in the ‘80s actually held a lease sale.  Later, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the government spent more than $100 million to buy back those leases.  Dillingham fisherman Katherine Carscallen, who is also engaged in the fight to stop the region’s proposed Pebble Mine, says Obama’s action is significant, even though a future president can reverse it.

“It’s going to be a huge and hopefully an unacceptable lift for another president to turn those protections around and take them away and say Bristol Bay isn’t worth protecting,’ she said. “So it definitely doesn’t take away from today, but it also means we’ll never be done working on this.”

Sen. Mark Begich issued a statement commending the president’s decision.