ANCHORAGE — President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that he’s removing more than 52,000 square miles of waters off Alaska’s coast from consideration for oil and gas exploration or drilling.
The president said in a video announcement that Bristol Bay and nearby waters, covering an area roughly the size of Florida, would be withdrawn from consideration for petroleum leases. He called Bristol Bay one of the country’s great natural resources and a massive economic engine.
“It’s something that’s too precious for us to be putting out to the highest bidder,” Obama said.
Bristol Bay has supported Native Americans in the Alaska region for centuries, he said.
“It supports about $2 billion in the commercial fishing industry,” Obama said. “It supplies America with 40 percent of its wild-caught seafood.”
The bay is north of the Alaska Peninsula, which juts out west from mainland Alaska at the start of the Aleutian Islands chain.
Petroleum leases sold there in the mid-1980s were bought back in 1995 at taxpayer expense for $95 million after the Exxon Valdez spill, said Marilyn Heiman, U.S. Arctic director for Pew Charitable Trusts. Fisheries around the world are in decline, but Bristol Bay’s well-managed fisheries are some of the most productive in the world and worthy of protection, she said.
“This is one of the most important ocean protection decisions this president or any president has ever made,” Heiman said.
Gov. Bill Walker said the waters of Bristol Bay feed world-premier fisheries.
“I look forward to working cooperatively, in Alaska’s clear interest, with the federal government to safely and economically develop regions of our state and offshore waters for oil and gas,” Walker said in a statement. “Bristol Bay, however, is not that place.”
Robin Samuelson, chairman of Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. and a lifelong resident of Dillingham at the head of the bay, said protection for the fishery has been a 25-year battle. The bay supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, and the waters are nursing grounds for halibut and crab.
“I’m tickled pink,” Samuelson said. “The president recognized our great fisheries out here and how important they are to the people of Bristol Bay and the nation.”
Obama and former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in March 2010 that a planned 2011 lease sale in what the Interior Department refers to as the North Aleutian Basin would be canceled. Salazar cited a lack of infrastructure and the bay’s valuable natural resources.
The temporary withdrawal was set to expire in 2017. Obama’s decision Tuesday under authority of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 withdraws the area permanently.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she’s not objecting to the president’s decision at this time, given the industry’s lack of interest in the area and a public divide over allowing oil and gas exploration there.
“I think we all recognize that these are some of our state’s richest fishing waters,” she said. “What I do not understand is why this decision could not be made within the context of the administration’s upcoming plan for offshore leasing — or at least announced at the same time.”
According to the White House, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was the first to use presidential authority to withdraw acreage from offshore drilling consideration.
Eisenhower in 1960 withdrew an area now included in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and presidents from both parties have withdrawn other areas.