ANCHORAGE - The Bush administration took a first step Tuesday toward allowing oil and gas leasing in an area of the Bering Sea considered important for the recovery of the world's most endangered whale.
The administration proposal opening up 5.6 million acres off the Alaska coast to energy development was published in the Federal Register by the Minerals Management Service. The area, which had been protected from drilling since 1990, is north of the Aleutian Islands near Bristol Bay. The administration lifted the ban last year.
Under the leasing proposal, the North Aleutian Basin lease sale would be held in 2011. Exploratory drilling could begin the next year.
The publication of the proposal marks the start of the process, which will involve a public comment period and months of gathering information for an environmental impact statement, said Robin Cacy, an MMS spokeswoman in Anchorage.
"No decisions have been made on the sale. This is just the beginning," she said.
The issuing of the proposal came on the same day that the National Marine Fisheries Service published its final decision reaffirming portions of the lease area as critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which sued to get the federal government in 2006 to designate critical habitat for the whales, is suing to shut down the Bering Sea lease sale.
The problem, according to the center, is that more than half of the proposed lease sale area is designated critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale - long believed to be on certain road to extinction. That gloomy scenario has brightened somewhat with a surprising number of right whales found recently in the Bering Sea.
Center spokesman Brendan Cummings said allowing drilling in the critical habitat is a bad omen for other endangered animals.
"It would completely eviscerate the protections that critical habitat are supposed to provide," he said. "If there is actual development - tanker traffic, drilling noise, industrial disturbance - it will turn an area that is relatively pristine into an industrial zone. The whale's grip on existence is so tenuous as it is that this will likely push it over the edge toward extinction."
Whale experts say there could be fewer than 50 North Pacific right whales in the eastern North Pacific and perhaps a couple hundred on the Russian side. The large whales once ranged from California to Alaska and across the North Pacific to Russia and Japan. However, commercial whaling almost wiped them out.
Cacy said MMS is collaborating with the National Marine Fisheries Service on a $5 million study of the whales. Their distribution, numbers and habitat will be studied over a more than three-year period - enough time, the agency says, to collect environmental data on animals that could be affected by offshore drilling.
"We are going to be striving to get the best scientific information available," she said.
Bristol Bay commercial fishermen also oppose drilling there.