Alaska Editorial: It's time to look for oil in Bristol Bay

Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2003

The following editorial appeared in the Sunday edition of the Voice of the Times:

Many years ago, when statehood was young and people were looking at ways to expand the economy, strong suggestions were made that oil and gas exploration should be conducted in Bristol Bay. Heavens no, said the salmon fishing industry - with solid nods of approval from the environmental lobbies.

Messing around in waters where major commercial fish runs existed would not be wise. Pollution, and all that. Fish were the mainstay of the Bristol Bay economy and always would be. Or so the argument went.

The passing years have made such views a bit obsolete. Fishing is not what it used to be. Fish prices are not what they once were. Markets are being fed by salmon from other parts of the world - including apparent unlimited supplies from fish farms and hatcheries.

Now comes the state of Alaska and the Bristol Bay Native Corp., signatories of a formal memorandum of understanding to cooperate on what once seemed an unlikely goal - probing for new energy sources through oil and gas lease sales on state land and native corporation land in the area.

"We have two goals," said Gov. Frank Murkowski. "The first is to prepare for shallow gas leases in the upper end of the bay with a target date of fall 2004, to help offset the high cost of energy in the local communities. The second target is to have oil and gas lease sales ready for onshore areas by the fall of 2005."

In addition, said the governor, the state and Native leaders will "work together to persuade the federal government to reopen federal offshore prospects in the region, which are under a moratorium until 2011.

The agreement calls for all such exploration activities to be conducted "in an environmentally sensitive manner with a minimum impact to the fishery resources."

Of course. That's a given now, as it would have been years ago had the desire to move forward been as strong at the time. No Alaskan favors any major energy development that is insensitive to environmental concerns.

But at long last the concerns of the residents of the area to achieve lower energy costs are being heard. That is a real need - as is the national urgency in finding new oil and gas resources that will help offset the country's reliance on energy imports.

Bristol Bay exploration clearly is a project whose time has come.

In fact, it's long overdue.

We salute the Murkowski administration and the Bristol Bay Native Corp. for moving forward in concert to make this happen.

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