A 'Good Start': Obama Moves to Protect Key Alaskan Waters from Drilling

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A 'Good Start': Obama Moves to Protect Key Alaskan Waters from Drilling

Executive action to protect waters of pristine Bristol Bay does not deter ecologically devastating copper and gold mining project

Residents and fisheries in the Bristol Bay region had long-sought protection from oil and gas exploration. (Photo: Luke Strickland / Alaska Marine Conservation Council)

Residents and fisheries in the Bristol Bay region had long-sought protection from oil and gas exploration. (Photo: Luke Strickland / Alaska Marine Conservation Council)

A pristine and ecologically rich region of Alaska will now be protected from any future oil and gas drilling, President Obama announced late Tuesday after signing an executive memorandum to withdraw roughly 32.5 million acres from potential development.

Bristol Bay, part of the North Aleutian Basin, is home to many threatened animal species including rare sea ducks, sea otters, seals, walruses, Beluga and Killer whales, and the endangered North Pacific Right Whale. Further, as one of the world's most prized fisheries, it provides 40 percent of America's wild-caught seafood.

"These waters are too special and too valuable to auction off to the highest bidder," the President said.

The move was celebrated widely by environmental groups, which have been calling for a complete ban on all Arctic drilling.

"Putting these waters, and others in the Arctic Ocean, off-limits to new dirty fuel development will help preserve Alaska's unique natural wonders and the traditions, economies and wildlife they support. There are cleaner, more efficient ways to power and move our country," said Dan Ritzman, Alaska Program Director for Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign.

Ritzman added: "The president's action is especially important in the face of a changing climate. Keeping dirty fuels, and the climate pollution they produce, in the ground will benefit us all, but especially the people of Alaska whose home is already warming at twice the rate of the lower 48 states."

The executive action follows years of campaigning by Alaskan indigenous communities to protect the waters of Bristol Bay. In 2007, President George Bush opened 5.6 million acres of the North Aleutian Basin for oil and gas leasing. In March 2010, Obama placed a temporary moratorium on offshore leases there through 2017. After Tuesday's announcement, that ban is now extended indefinitely.

"Bristol Bay is a place where people have been working for many, many years to protect it from offshore drilling," Marilyn Heiman, director of the U.S. Arctic program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told Huffington Post reporter Kate Sheppard. "This will give certainty to fisherman, to the Alaska Native communities, protecting this incredible marine ecosystem."

However, the presidential decree does not impact a pending EPA decision regarding the construction of Pebble Mine, a controversial copper and gold mining project which, by the EPA's own admission (pdf), could pose "significant near- and long-term risk to salmon, wildlife and Native Alaska cultures" in the region.

Following the announcement, 350.org communications director Jamie Henn wrote, "we still need EPA and the White House to help stop the Pebble Mine…but oil and gas is a good start."

A spokesperson for the mine developer, Pebble Partnership, told Politico that the presidential order "is not of concern since it does not address mining." Politico reports, "Pebble recently persuaded a federal judge to block EPA from doing any work on potential restrictions to the mine while a lawsuit under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, an open government law, plays out." 

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