President Barack Obama took executive action on Tuesday to prevent future leasing of Bristol Bay for offshore oil and gas exploration or development.
In a memorandum to the Secretary of the Interior, Obama announced that he was withdrawing the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area, which includes Bristol Bay, from future lease consideration. Though not permanent, the action has no termination date.
Obama wrote the move is
[c]onsistent with principles of responsible public stewardship entrusted to this office, with due consideration of the importance of Bristol Bay and the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area to subsistence use by Alaska Natives, wildlife, wildlife habitat, and sustainable commercial and recreational fisheries, and to ensure that the unique resources of Bristol Bay remain available for future generations[.]”
He previously withdrew the area from leasing disposition in March of 2010 through June of 2017.
The president has the authority to, “from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf,” according to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.
The first time the law was used to protect a marine ecosystem was in 1960, when President Dwight Eisenhower withdrew an area now protected as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Similar protection for Bristol Bay would require an act of Congress.
Obama described Bristol Bay in a Youtube video as “one of America’s greatest natural resources and a massive economic engine, not only for Alaska, but for America,” and “too precious for us to be putting out to the highest bidder.”
The North Aleutian Basin Planning Area totals 32.5 million acres, according to a White House press release. It was opened to oil and gas leases in 1986, though many of the leases were bought back by the Department of the Interior in 1995. President Bill Clinton withdrew Bristol Bay from lease consideration in 1998, but his successor, George W. Bush made the area available again until Obama’s action of 2010.
The Fish Basket Coalition, which seeks to permanently protect Bristol Bay from oil and gas development, praised Obama’s decision in a Tuesday press release. “Today’s announcement resolves longstanding concerns and should end the on again-off again nature of leasing in Bristol Bay,” the release said.
Withdrawal from lease disposition does not affect any of the existing leases in the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area.
Bristol Bay produces 40 percent of U.S. seafood, an amount the Fish Basket Coalition and the White House say amounts to $2 billion per year.
Tuesday’s action is just the latest move to protect Bristol Bay. In November, voters approved a ballot measure that requires the approval of the state legislature before allowing construction of a mine that would impact Bristol Bay. The proposed Pebble Mine would be impacted by the measure.