Bristol Bay drilling is polarizing issue

Bristol Bay drilling is polarizing issue

Rural Alaska leaders and fishermen are jockeying for President Bush’s attention over the possible lifting of a moratorium on drilling in Bristol Bay and a portion of the Bering Sea.

Not that they speak with one voice.

From east in the Aleutians to west in Dillingham, there’s a lot of differing opinion on whether oil and gas development in the North Aleutian Basin is a good idea.

Officials in the Bush administration recently confirmed the president is considering lifting the moratorium on development in the North Aleutian basin.

At issue is a possible 8,700-square-mile federal oil and gas lease from Port Moller to Unimak Pass, ranging from 11 to more than 100 miles offshore of the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands chain.

The government estimates the basin contains large amounts of gas and lesser amounts of oil.

The lease sale cannot go forward unless Bush lifts the presidential moratorium in place since the 1980s.

Though not one oil or gas reserve is proved yet in the basin, plenty of people are already seeing dollar signs.

The Aleutians East Borough, for example, would collect millions of dollars of tax revenue every year from the infrastructure that would have to be built to support gas and oil rigs.

“We would be a big winner. I’m up front with that,” said Bob Juettner, the borough administrator.

He said neighboring boroughs also see the potential for thousands of jobs — there’s no way the small Aleutians population could quench the job demand created by a gas or oil boom, he said.

But for others, drilling conjures up a nightmare of fisheries destroyed by an Exxon Valdez-like oil spill.

“It would likely affect all fisheries in the region,” said Karen Gillis, executive director of the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association.

Large fleets of trawlers and other fishing boats harvest pollock, Pacific cod and sole within the lease area, according to government scientists. The basin contains a protected nursery area for halibut and critical habitat for red king crab. Salmon migrate through the lease area on their way to Bristol Bay rivers.

Within the basin, commercial fisheries have a retail value of nearly $2 billion annually, according to a Dec. 7 letter sent by fishing groups to Gov. Sarah Palin and President Bush.

“The snapshot of oil and gas development for this area does not compare to the longevity of these fisheries or to the future value,” the letter stated.

In the last few weeks, Bristol Bay and Aleutian groups have been busy trying to set the Bush administration and Alaska’s new governor straight on where they stand on drilling.

The debate boils down to those who stand to benefit from potential jobs and millions in tax revenue vs. those worried about losing their livelihoods, Gillis said.

Here’s a sample of the fracture lines:

Ӣ The Lake and Peninsula, Bristol Bay, Aleutians East and Kodiak Island boroughs, the Aleut Corp., the Bristol Bay Native Corp., numerous Aleutian chain village corporations, cities and tribal councils, 14 energy companies, and a variety of Alaska-based industry groups support lifting the moratorium.

”¢ The Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, the Bristol Bay Native Association, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., the Bristol Bay Driftnetters’ Association, the Alaska Independent Fishermen’s Marketing Association and numerous environmental groups are against opening it.

The White House has not indicated how soon it might make a decision.

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