WASHINGTON - President Bush lifted a ban Tuesday on oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay, an area known for its endangered whales and the world's largest run of sockeye salmon.
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The action clears the way for the Interior Department to open 5.6 million acres of the fish-rich waters northwest of the Alaska Peninsula as part of its next five-year leasing plan.
"There will be significant opportunities for study and public comment before any oil and gas development could take place," said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. But he said the bay, as well as expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, "will enhance America's energy security."
Interior's tentative plans call for Bristol Bay leases being made available in 2010 and 2012, pending the environmental reviews.
Kempthorne said Alaska state officials as well as some local and native groups had asked that the ban be ended to spur the local fishing-dominated economy.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who in 2003 got Congress to lift its moratorium on drilling in the bay, called the president's decision "welcome news for people who live and work" there.
Alaska's newly elected Republican governor, Sarah Palin, welcomed the possibility of additional oil and gas production and promised "a very aggressive role in making sure our fisheries are protected."
There are believed to be 200 million barrels of oil and 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas beneath the bay's federal waters three miles to 200 miles from shore. The Interior Department last year estimated energy development could produce up to 11,500 jobs and new tax revenue for the state.
But the area also is known for its fisheries with huge annual catches of salmon, cod, red king crab, halibut and huge schools of herring.
Concern over those fisheries prompted Congress to put the bay off limits to drilling in 1990 after the massive Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill on the other side of the peninsula in Cook Inlet. Later, then-President Clinton added his own drilling ban, one that had been continued by Bush.
Talk of opening the fish-rich waters to oil and gas drilling has outraged environmentalists and many of the area's fishermen.
"It's outrageous. It's a sad day for Bristol Bay," Eric Siy, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, said in a telephone interview, responding to Bush's action.
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"It's one of the largest and most valuable commercial fisheries in the world," said Siy. "And precisely where they intend to drill and site rigs is the critical habitat, feeding grounds of the North Pacific Right Whale, one of the most endangered on Earth."
The areas proposed for leasing also overlaps the migratory route for all of the wild salmon returning to Bristol Bay and the western Alaska river system, environmentalists say.
But others welcome the economic potential - although with caution.
"The president has opened the door for us," said Stanley Mack, a fisherman and mayor of the Aleutians East Borough, but he added, "We're going to walk through it very cautiously."
The Aleutians East Borough's administrator, Bob Juettner, said developing the offshore oil and gas presents "a wonderful opportunity" to bring jobs to area and help the economy which has declined because of competition from foreign fisheries and the growth of farm-raised salmon.
"But keep in mind our families have centered their lives around commercial and subsistence fisheries for thousands of years," he continued. "And we can't let anything threaten our traditional way of life."
Without strict safeguards, warned Juettner "we will withdraw our support."
Environmentalists maintained that local support has in any case been overstated and that many of the native groups, village leaders and fishing groups are on record opposing oil and gas development in the bay.
Last month, more than 30 people representing a wide range of interests from the national Sierra Club and World Wildlife Fund to local fishermen and native Alaskans, wrote Bush, urging him to keep oil and gas rigs out of the bay.