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Congress considers opening Bristol Bay to offshore leasing

  • Author: Hannah Heimbuch
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published July 1, 2013

A bill making progress through the legislative ladder of the U.S. Congress is garnering some nervous attention in Alaska this month. House Bill 2231 could potentially open up the previously protected waters of Bristol Bay, along with many other areas in the U.S., to offshore drilling.

The legislation is called the Offshore Energy and Jobs Act, and was approved by the House Natural Resources Committee earlier this month by a majority vote of 23 to 18.

Under President Barack Obama's current 2012 to 2017 offshore exploration plan, 85 percent of the United States' coastal waters are off-limits when it comes to oil and gas. That includes Alaska's Bristol Bay — but does not include the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and portions of Southcentral where there is current exploration underway. This new legislation would require a new lease plan from the administration that allows for exploration in those areas with the greatest potential resources. Areas with significant potential are those that contain 2.5 billion barrels of oil or 7.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Under these conditions, Bristol Bay fits the bill.

That's why the fisheries-rich region is included in those areas that H.R. 2231 proposes to open for 2015-2020 lease sales. It potentially holds 8.23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 750 million barrels of oil.

Armada of opposition

Among the many strong opponents to increased oil drilling off Alaska's coast is the international environmental conservation organization Oceana. Their position on the proposed expansion maintains that an increase in drilling at the proposed rate cannot be done safely and the current moratorium should remain in place.

Oceana's Pacific senior counsel testified before the House committee on June 11, voicing his organization's concerns regarding this legislation.

"Both the Deepwater Horizon accident and Shell's ill-fated efforts to drill exploration wells in the Arctic Ocean unfortunately demonstrated that decisions to prioritize expediency and profit often create significant and unnecessary risk to important ocean resources on which we depend for economic well-being, cultural connection, food security, and many other important uses," Levine said during his address of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Those incidents also point to a lack of government oversight of offshore exploration, he said, and a need for improved science and response capacity before the risks and benefits can really balance out.

Supporters include Don Young

The bill's supporters at the congressional level, including Committee Chairman Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., cite job creation as the paramount reason for opening these waters.

"The Obama Administration has placed the majority of the Outer Continental Shelf off-limits and placed half of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska off limits," Hastings said in a recent Committee on Natural Resources release.

"By doing so it is blocking the creation of over a million new American jobs and forfeiting hundreds of millions of dollars in much needed revenue. These bills will unlock our American energy resources on federal lands and waters. The Committee's approval of these bills is a vital step toward helping to ensure our energy and economic security."

Alaska's Congressman Don Young supported the Act during the Natural Resources Committee markup. He is in favor of requiring the current administration to ditch its current five-year leasing plan and expand it to include areas where exploration is currently prohibited — like Bristol Bay.

"Day, after day, after day, this nation imports millions of barrels of oil from foreign countries like Venezuela, when we should be looking at the vast offshore potential off our coastlines; this bill does that, requiring lease sales in areas containing large oil and gas potential," said Rep. Young in a release. "Another important component of this bill is the revenue sharing provision for new offshore development. If enacted, coastal states like Alaska would see a 37.5 percent royalty rate on all development off their Outer Continental Shelf (OCS)."

Agreement on Arctic risks?

Levine argued that the urgency to create jobs and discover domestic oil resources must not come at the expense of good planning. Energy should instead be put toward a well crafted plan for Arctic exploration that includes more oversight and regulation, not less. More scientific development, not progress at a high rate of risk.

The sensitive Arctic environment plays a critical role in the rest of the world's climate and ecosystem health. It is incredibly sensitive to the changes the globe is currently experiencing, including increasing temperatures and ocean acidification. Opponents of drilling expansion maintain that an increase in environmental threats from industrial activity should be weighed far more heavily than this legislation is suggesting.

He also pointed out that both industry and government seem very aware of the risk.

"While acknowledging the 'limited information' available upon which to make an assessment, the federal government has estimated that, '[f]or a catastrophic oil spill, it is assumed that two entire years of Arctic marine mammal subsistence harvests and one and onehalf years of Bowhead whale harvests would be lost,'" Levine said. "It has also estimated that there is a substantial likelihood of such a spill; in its 2008 Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Chukchi and Beaufort Planning Areas, federal regulators estimated that there is a 40 percent chance of a large spill in the Chukchi Sea and a 26 percent chance of a large spill in the Beaufort Sea."

That risk is in addition to the routine and expected impact of oil exploration including increased traffic, infrastructure and typical contaminant leaks.

Spill response still lacks

There is also the much discussed debate concerning the lack of a proven method for spill response in the Arctic, Levine said, and a lack of established response equipment.

These and many other arguments are made parallel to the reality that fossil fuels are a finite resource, Levine said, and any oil and gas drilling at this point is undertaken with the understanding that human societies will be forced to expand its exploration to sustainable energy potential.

"We can and must make better informed decisions about whether to allow these activities and, if so, under what conditions," Levine said. "As we consider any industrial activities in the ocean — oil and gas, shipping, fishing, alternative energy development — our first step should be to understand and protect the marine environment and those dependent on it. Once we better understand the ecosystem and what steps can be taken to protect it, we can better balance risks and benefits and, therefore, make better decisions about whether and under what conditions to allow industrial activities."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)

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