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Staking a Claim: The Battle for Bristol Bay
The quest for domestic sources of energy has legislators looking to waters off Alaska’s western coast. But do the potential benefits outweigh the risks to wildlife?

Cold Bay, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

There are many topics the presidential candidates don’t agree on, but both have expressed support for offshore drilling for oil and gas. Still, not everyone shares their views, and some environmentalists worry that opening areas like Alaska’s Bristol Bay for oil and gas exploration could be ecologically devastating.

“The coastal zone and near-shore areas of Bristol Bay pretty much couldn’t [be] a more sensitive coastline,” says Kelly Harrell, project director for the group Friends of Bristol Bay of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “Mudflats, eelgrass, intertidal vegetation. Cleaning up a spill if it reached the coastline would be impossible.”

The extraordinary biodiversity of Bristol Bay, an area west and north of the Alaska Peninsula, makes it the focus of conservation efforts. But the shallow waters that support its abundant life also make it an attractive place for oil and gas development, especially with rising gas prices and calls for “energy independence.” Currently, the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) is pushing to open Bristol Bay for drilling—a scheme the agency predicts would produce 11,500 jobs and $7.7 billion while the fields are in operation. Environmentalists, however, argue that drilling’s ecological costs would outweigh the benefits. To make matters worse, Bristol Bay faces another threat, from the proposed Pebble Mine project, which would create one of the largest mines on earth to mine copper, gold, and molybdenum. (For more on the Pebble project, see “Fooling With Paradise.”)

Bristol Bay was first opened for oil and gas development in the late 1980s. Shortly after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, though, the U.S. government imposed two separate bans—one congressional, one executive—on drilling in the region. Congress renewed its half of the ban every year until 2003, but President George W. Bush lifted the executive ban in early 2007. Once the moratorium ended, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the agency responsible for managing the country’s offshore oil, gas, and mineral resources, included Bristol Bay in its nationwide five-year offshore drilling plan. The MMS’s preliminary analysis suggested drilling would cause minimal harm to the habitat and wildlife of the North Aleutian Basin, which includes Bristol Bay.

One worrisome finding, though, was that a large oil spill (defined as greater than 1,000 barrels, or more than 40,000 gallons) “would be expected” in the area including Bristol Bay. The bay is home to five national wildlife refuges, including Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses a series of lagoons that support hundreds of thousands of Pacific black brant, emperor and Taverner’s Canada geese, migratory shorebirds, and threatened Steller’s eiders. The larger North Aleutian Basin is also critical habitat for several endangered and threatened marine mammals, including the newly listed beluga whale and the severely endangered North Pacific right whale.

Audubon Alaska Director Stan Senner is particularly worried about the sheltered lagoons of Izembek Refuge. “If oil were to get inside that lagoon system, it would be there for a long, long time,” Senner says.

Even if an oil spill didn’t reach the sensitive shoreline, it could have devastating effects on commercial and subsistence fisheries that depend on the waters to provide catches including sockeye salmon, pollock, herring, halibut, and red king crab. And the sea ice, limited sunlight, and inclement weather of Alaska’s oceans would only exacerbate the problem, experts say.

“Rough waters, huge waves—that’s what happens in Bristol Bay on a regular basis in the winter,” says Margaret Williams, the managing director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Bering Sea and Kamchatka program, which works to study and preserve Arctic land and ocean. “You have an oil spill and you try to launch a cleanup, and it’s impossible.”

Williams points out that spills aren’t the only concern. Drill rigs, pipelines, and nearby production and processing facilities, as well as increased marine and air traffic, could disturb wildlife. And the seismic testing oil companies use to find reserves has been shown to cause deafness and disorientation in whales. It can also disrupt migratory patterns and schooling behavior of fish, says Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska.

Drilling does have proponents, of course. John Iani, a member of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, says oil and gas production could benefit Alaskans financially. And though the MMS is unlikely to open the North Aleutian Basin for leasing until 2011 or 2012—a fact that would seem to counter the argument that offshore drilling will alleviate gas prices today—Iani sees that delay as advantageous—ecologically, that is.

There will be “a number of environmental reviews before any activity takes place,” he says. “I’m pretty comfortable that the environmental review on this project is going to be rigorous.” Shell Oil, widely rumored to be interested in drilling in the North Aleutian Basin, says it understands “the need to preserve and protect the environment, and the importance of coexisting with the existing fisheries and communities in the North Aleutian Basin.”

The next administration could reinstate the offshore drilling moratorium, but even if it doesn’t, laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act require a certain level of responsibility from the MMS and from any corporation that buys a lease. But Bristol Bay’s fate in part depends on public opinion—and energy is at the forefront of many Americans’ minds.

The MMS says it will consider the public comments it received during the scoping period, which ended October 17, when drafting a final environmental-impact statement, due in early 2010. These include the United Fishermen of Alaska’s request for more responsible seismic testing. Christine Huffaker, a representative for the MMS’s Alaska office, says the agency is currently studying subsistence fisheries and possible impacts on marine mammals. 

But for environmental scientists like Williams, current knowledge about the ecosystem leaves much to be desired. “The precautionary principle should be the guiding principle,” she says. “There’s a lot we don’t know about Bristol Bay, [or] about the North Pacific right whale. To move in and harm these species would be a huge mistake and potentially cause irreversible damage.”

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