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House Bill Would Open Bristol Bay to Offshore Gas Leasing

U.S. House Resources Committee

A bill working its way through the House of Representatives would open Bristol Bay to gas lease sales in a new leasing plan.   The legislation, however,  faces a skeptical Senate and a very long road to implementation.The Offshore Energy and Jobs Act passed the House Resources Committee last week. House republicans are again pushing to open much of the nation’s currently closed waters for drilling, including Bristol Bay.  This would scrap President Obama’s 5 year leasing plan and require a new one by 2015.

The Committee last week defeated a one sentence amendment that would have banned leases in Bristol Bay.   An Oregon Democrat Peter Defazio introduced the amendment, which failed on a straight line party vote. Alaska Congressman Don Young says he supports the moratorium, but did not vote to remove Bristol Bay.

"It's under a moratorium which we agreed to, which I've been very actively involved in,  until 2017.  I am not going to see that moratorium lifted for anther part of a bill and have a conflicting presentation, so I didn't do it. I probably could have voted the other way for political purposes.  Looking at the benefit to the state of  Alaska as a whole, not just Bristol Bay, as a whole you have to think about that.  I represent the whole state, not just one area," said Young.

Young points to enormous potential of Arctic offshore oil in his vote.

"Right now we get nothing on offshore development, including the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, which have a tremendous  amount of oil.  My argument is that any actual development of those two areas has  little benefit to the state of Alaska, we'd get something back from the utilization of the pipeline,  but  under this we get the same revenue share as Louisiana, Alabama, and other Gulf shore states. I think that's crucially important to the state of Alaska.

The increased revenue share is 37 and a half percent.  The  proposed bill calls for lease sales in half of the nations energy rich waters, those with at least 2.5 billion barrels of oil or 7.5 trillion cubic feet of gas. The Bristol Bay area as part of the North Aleutian Basin is thought to contain about 750 million barrels of oil and between 8 and 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. 

Over decades of back and forth arguments, fisherman and environmental groups have pushed back against plans to open the Bay to drilling.  Dorothy Childers is the Associate Director for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

"We feel strongly that the risk is so much greater than what would be potentially gained by development of those offshore oil and gas resources.  We already have an industry in Bristol Bay, it's fisheries.  It's highly valued by the people who live there and by the industry at large.  It's a renewable resource, we should do everything we can to protect that, maintain that, and invest in the future of the fishery," said Childers.

Similar bills that would greatly expand the nation’s offshore drilling program have advanced from the house and then died within the senate.

"We're fairly optimistic that the Senate is not going to jump ship and do something unexpected on this.  Nonetheless, you have to watch your back.  We will be asking our senators to do what they've done in the past and work with their colleagues to make sure Bristol Bay doesn't end up in one of these bills," said Childers.

The debate over oil and gas development goes back decades in Bristol Bay.  The government held lease sales in 1986, selling 120 thousand acres for 95 million dollars.  But since then, the status of oil and gas development has flip flopped with different administrations.  After the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, Congress added a moratorium on drilling in Bristol Bay.  President Clinton put a moratorium on Bristol Bay drilling in 1995.  The government then bought back the leases in 1995. Congress removed protection in 2003, and President Bush pushed for a lease sale as soon as 2011.  In early 2010, President Obama removed Bristol Bay from his offshore energy plan.  

The 2013 legislation is now headed to the full House for consideration.

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