Obama Declares Bristol Bay Off Limits to New Oil and Gas Drilling Leases

President Barack Obama signs memorandum declaring Bristol Bay region of Alaska off limits to new oil and gas drilling leases.

The Bristol Bay watershed has been saved, at least from oil and gas drilling. 

President Barack Obama on December 16 decreed the entire area off limits by signing a Presidential Memorandum withdrawing “these beautiful and pristine waters from all future oil and gas drilling,” according to a White House press release.

In doing so Obama invoked Native Alaskans and their traditional uses of the land, as well as the key role they played in helping preserve the watershed.

“Bristol Bay has supported Native Americans in the Alaska region for centuries,” he said in a video address. “It supports about $2 billion in the commercial fishing industry, supplies America with forty percent of its wild-caught seafood. It is a beautiful natural wonder, and it’s something that’s too precious for us to just be putting out to the highest bidder.”

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Although the memorandum does not directly address mining, it acknowledges the importance of protecting this major watershed region, home to one of the world’s biggest wild salmon runs, and the traditional territory of many Native Alaskans. It’s a major victory for those who have been fighting off the Pebble Mine development, which would have created the world’s biggest open-pit mine, although the implications were not explicit in Obama’s decree. In addition, he said in the memorandum, “Nothing in this withdrawal affects the rights under existing leases in this area.”

There has been an ongoing battle to protect the massive watershed, and Obama’s move puts about 32.5 million acres, known as the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area and including Bristol Bay, off limits to new oil and gas drilling leases. What Obama has done is cancel a new lease sale for 2011, set by the previous administration, that would have opened up 5.6 million acres, or about one-fifth of the planning area, to drilling, the White House said.

“In 2010, President Obama temporarily withdrew the Bristol Bay area from oil and gas development, and today's action extends that protection indefinitely,” the White House statement said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been attempting to block the mining proposal under the Clean Water Act, with mixed results.

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Obama also recognized the efforts of Native Alaskans in preserving the region and protecting it from industrial development.

“Because of the great work that was done by local communities, Native Alaskans, folks who cared about making sure that we preserved this natural wonder for generations to come, we were able to take action that is going to take it off the bidder’s block and make sure that it is preserved into the future,” he said.

See the full video address below.