Conservation groups voice concerns about offshore leasing

source:  Alaska Journal of Commerce, by Margaret Bauman

Exploration in outer continental shelf area stirs debate in Bristol Bay.
An oil and gas industry spokeswoman says a federal decision to open the North Aleutian Basin to exploration is good news, but fishermen and conservation interests say it poses a grave risk. “It’s good news for both the nation and for Alaska,” said Marilyn Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, speaking from her Anchorage office July 2. The federal Minerals Management Service estimates that the entire national outer continental shelf program will generate 10 billion barrels of oil, 24 percent of which will come from Alaska’s OCS, and 45 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 11 percent of which will come from Alaska, Crockett said.

“Very disappointing,” said Robin Samuelsen, head of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., speaking by cell phone from his fishing boat, near Clark’s Point. “It doesn’t surprise me, with this (Bush) administration, but a lot can happen between now and 2011.

“We have some of the most productive waters in the world,” said Samuelsen, whose family has fished Bristol Bay for generations. “We shouldn’t be drilling; it may cause an effect on the habitat.” Being in federal waters, there is no state control, and exploration companies don’t even have to hire Alaskan residents, he said.

An estimated 40 percent of total domestic fish harvests come from the Bristol Bay region, including salmon, halibut, pollock, cod and red king crab. The fishing industry is also a major employer in the Bristol Bay region.

The decision announced June 29 by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne opened the way, beginning July 1, for a five-year lease sale program, through 2012, including eight lease sales in Alaska.

These include sales in the Chukchi Sea in February 2008, the Beaufort Sea and Cook Inlet in 2009, Chukchi Sea in 2010, Beaufort Sea, North Aleutian Basin (Bristol Bay), Cook Inlet sale 219 in 2011, and a third Chukchi Sea sale in 2012.

The federal environmental impact statement for the 2008 Chukchi Sea sale is already out for a 30-day public comment period, which closes at the end of July, said Tina Huffaker, MMS spokeswoman.

The proposed notice of the sale will come out shortly after the comment period ends, along with a consistency determination. There is a 60-day comment period on the proposed notice, and the state of Alaska must study the consistency determination and agree that the plan is consistent with its own coastal management plan, Huffaker said. The state may ask for an extension.

The Alaska Marine Conservation Council also weighed in on Kempthorne’s decision, expressing concerns over the potential impact of hydrocarbon exploration on Bristol Bay, home of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, and critical to other commercial, sport and subsistence fishing interests. “It is, indeed, a sad day for Bristol Bay,” said Eric Siy, AMCC’s executive director. “Repeated calls from an extraordinarily diverse constituency including Native villages, commercial fishermen, conservationists, and more united in their opposition to offshore oil and gas development in Bristol Bay, have fallen on deaf ears.”

The Bristol Bay fishery, now in full swing with a harvest of 24 million sockeye salmon expected this year, is valued at more than $2 billion for its salmon and other seafood. The proposed 2011 lease sale lies in a 5.6 million acre area off the Alaska Peninsula. It overlaps important habitat and fishing grounds for red king crab, halibut, pollock, cod and salmon.

The lease sale area also overlaps designated critical habitat for the endangered North Pacific right whale and is home to the greatest concentration of seabird colonies in North America.

Seismic exploration, oil spills, contaminated discharges, infrastructure construction and increased vessel traffic pose risks to the region’s fish, marine mammals, seabirds and waterfowl, Siy said.

Until 2007, Bristol Bay was protected by both congressional and executive actions imposed after the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill to bar offshore oil and gas development.

“It is now incumbent on the Congress to restore protection to this national treasure before it is too late,” Siy said. “The federal government’s own studies predict at latest one major oil spill will occur if development goes forward here. Knowing this makes today’s (June 29) action appear all the more irresponsible.”

Crockett countered that clearly MMS will carefully study and evaluate all potential impacts from leasing in the Bristol Bay area before the sale and eventual exploration occurs.

“Having the five-year program in place provides that level of certainty that the agencies need to move forward with studies and plans, and also, importantly, the level of certainty industry needs for future planning and investment evaluation,” she said.

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