Bush opens up Alaskan bay for oil exploration

Posted: 9 February 2007

The Bush Administration has lifted the restriction on development at Alaska's Bristol Bay to allow oil and gas exploration and drilling. This overturns decades of bipartisan protection of the Bay which is the backbone of Alaska's fishing economy as well as home to critical habitat for numerous endangered and threatened species.

In Alaska, Royal Dutch/Shell has been the main proponent for opening Bristol Bay. As currently envisioned by Shell, the project would include offshore platforms and subsea pipelines in the heart of the nation's largest fishery and endangered right whale habitat. It would also involve an overland pipeline across a national wildlife refuge, a natural gas liquefaction plant on the remote Alaskan Peninsula, and tankers transiting endangered Steller sea lion critical habitat.

Bristol Bay was originally opened to oil leasing in the late 1980s, but public outrage forced the government to buy back $95 million worth of leases. "You just don't put rigs in the middle of the nation's most productive fishing grounds," said Pete Hendrickson, a fisherman from Dutch Harbor/Unalaska. "We've been down this road before, and not much has changed-it was a bad idea then and it's a bad idea now."

Bristol Bay and the larger Bering Sea ecosystem are considered amongst the world's most biologically productive ocean regions. Walrus, whales, seals, otters, hundreds of species of fish, and nearly a million seabirds populate the rich tapestry of estuaries, lagoons, and ocean habitats that make up Bristol Bay. It is also home to the eastern stock of the North Pacific Right Whale, considered the most endangered whale population on the planet.

Sakhalin fears

"Opening Bristol Bay to oil and gas drilling is a direct result of the Bush Administration's unwillingness to adopt a responsible energy policy," said Whit Sheard, Alaska Programme Director for Pacific Environment. "This short-sighted policy ignores renewable energy sources and now jeopardizes America's sustainable seafood economy as well as the region's subsistence traditions."

Shell's lobbying has raised concerns in Bristol Bay communities as their Sakhalin II project in the neighboring Russian Far East has become one of the most controversial oil and gas projects in the world.

According to Pacific Environment the Russian government continues to investigate Shell's history of environmental violations and social impacts. Shell's construction on Sakhalin Island has threatened the Western Pacific Gray Whale with extinction, damaged wild salmon rivers and impacted fisheries that sustain one-third of the island's economy.

"Sakhalin II is widely recognized as an ecological and economic debacle," said David Gordon, Pacific Environment's Executive Director. "It doesn't surprise me that Shell is pushing to drill in the heart of important fisheries and critical habitat for highly imperiled whales - their behavior on Sakhalin Island provides a very painful example of what they've got planned for Alaska."

Source: Pacific Environment, January 9, 2007

Related link:

Shell pipeline puts gray whales in peril