"The commercial and intrinsic value of the region's marine life is too great to put at risk for the small amount of estimated recoverable oil reserves." -- Alaska Rep. Don Young, in 1995, supporting the federal government's buyback of offshore oil leases in Bristol Bay.
Hard times in the salmon industry, combined with high rural energy prices, have produced new local support for oil drilling in the Bristol Bay region, home to the world's largest runs of wild salmon. Long gone are the days when residents could boast that a good-sized salmon was worth more than a barrel of oil.
Apparently, memories of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill are long gone, too. That spill fouled more than 1,000 miles of Alaska coastline and shut down numerous fisheries. The fallout led the federal government to buy back offshore oil leases that it had unwisely sold in the Bristol Bay area. Since then, the region's federal offshore waters have been off-limits to oil and gas leasing, but the Bush administration is considering whether Ito lift the leasing ban.
The Bristol Bay region's new openness to oil and gas exploration is understandable. An influx of drillers would provide at least a temporary economic boost. Any commercial discovery -- always an iffy prospect -- would provide steady employment, increase the local tax base and might even result in cheaper local fuel supplies.
Pursuing those opportunities, though, requires striking a careful balance with the region's multimillion-dollar salmon fisheries. Where oil and gas are concerned, that balance is best struck at the water's edge. Drilling onshore is far less risky than drilling in marine waters. Onshore wells are easier to operate, and the odds are much better of containing a spill before it hits the water and spreads out of control.
As the federal government recognized after the Exxon Valdez spill, oil drilling in Bristol Bay unavoidably jeopardizes the millions of salmon that surge through the area each year. Those salmon support a large commercial industry and sustain local families with subsistence foods.
Responding to changing local attitudes, the state has proceeded with leasing onshore and in near-shore waters. Done with proper vigilance, that can be a responsible approach. Close-in leases in state waters can be tapped by directional drilling from land, reducing the risk of a catastrophic marine spill.
Some Bristol Bay groups support lifting the drilling moratorium in federal waters farther offshore. That's a dangerous gamble. The feds have recognized as much with drilling bans in vast areas of Lower 48 waters.
In Bristol Bay, the economic resources at risk from high seas drilling are at least as valuable as those in protected Lower 48 coastal waters. Bristol Bay's often stormy and icy conditions make operations more risky compared to the Lower 48.
The nation's addiction to oil does not require drilling in every federal nook and cranny where oil might possibly be found. There are places where the risks are just too high, the conflicting values too great. As Rep. Young recognized in 1995, one of those places is Bristol Bay.
BOTTOM LINE: Drill for oil in the middle of Bristol Bay's huge salmon runs? Not a good idea.
Copyright (c) 2006, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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