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Alaska Local Governments Want North Aleutian Basin Drilling Ban Lifted

A group of Alaskan natives and local governments warned President Bush Tuesday not to be fooled by others "masquerading" as locals who are against lifting the drilling moratorium in the North Aleutian Basin, which includes Bristol Bay, in southwestern Alaska. Reports that the president plans to issue an executive order lifting the ban on drilling in the area have prompted letters from several coalitions with opposing views on the matter.

On Nov. 29 a coalition of Alaska natives, fishermen and environmental groups sent an open letter to the president urging him not to remove the ban (see Daily GPI, Dec. 1). In contrast to that letter, nearly two dozen tribal councils and several local governments told the president on Tuesday that they support lifting the ban because it would benefit local communities and would not negatively impact the environment or the fishing industry.

The Nov 29 letter "does not reflect the will of our local families, commercial fisherman or the wishes of the vast majority of our local communities," said Jeff Currier, Dan O'Hara and Stanley Mack, three local mayors, on behalf of local communities and tribal councils. "In fact that Nov. 29 letter is just another example of outside groups masquerading as local citizens and pretending to represent our collective interests. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"Mr. President on behalf of the Aleutians East Borough, the Bristol Bay Borough, the Lake and Peninsula Borough, our residents and tribal organizations, we urge you to immediately lift the presidential withdrawal impacting oil and gas production in the North Aleutian Basin."

They noted that during a recent public comment period to consider the Minerals Management Service's (MMS) five-year plan for oil and gas leasing in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), "over 99% of comments received from Alaska were in favor of expanded access in Alaska offshore waters.

"With modern technology and ongoing environmental and ecological efforts, it is now apparent that oil and gas development, a clean environment and healthy fishing industries can co-exist," they said. "We strongly believe that modern oil and gas development will benefit our communities by diversifying our economies and provide new opportunities for our youth."

The North Aleutian Basin, located in the southwestern corner of Alaska, is an 8,700-square-mile, wedge-shaped area that falls outside fishing boundaries, between 11 and 115 miles offshore. It stretches from Port Moller southwest to Unimak Pass along the same boundaries as Lease Sale Area 92. Although this is sometimes identified as Bristol Bay, it is located well away from Bristol Bay salmon fisheries, the local boroughs said in a statement Wednesday.

The basin had been under a congressional ban on oil and gas drilling since 1989. In 1998, President Clinton issued an executive order reinforcing the ban until 2012. That ban can only be revoked by a presidential executive order. Congress dropped its moratorium on drilling in the area in 2003.

The MMS this year included the North Aleutian Basin for possible lease sales in its proposed five-year (2007-2012) leasing program for the federal OCS. The basin planning area is gas-prone, with an estimated 67% of the area's undiscovered hydrocarbon energy consisting of natural gas, according to MMS. It estimated that the area has technically recoverable, undiscovered gas resources of up to 23.38 Tcf. The agency pegged potential oil resources at about 2.5 billion barrels.

In order for MMS to begin an environmental impact statement specifically for the North Aleutian Basin the presidential moratorium must first be lifted.

The local boroughs said about 2,200 Alaskans have submitted letters supporting development in the area, while 100 others have opposed the proposal. The request the boroughs sent to the president Tuesday included 24 resolutions and letters by local groups supporting cautious development in the North Aleutian Basin.

"Those people who contacted the president last week asking him to keep the ban in place don't speak for locals," said Hara, mayor of the Bristol Bay Borough. "The majority of our local families want this to proceed. We're going to make sure it's done right. These are fisheries we've depended on for thousands of years. These are our lives. I'm convinced that done right, petroleum development and commercial fishing can co-exist."

"We agree," said Currier, manager of the Lake and Peninsula Borough, which includes 17 subsistence and commercial fishing communities near the proposed development. "We are keeping a close eye on the proposal. For now, we want the process to proceed."

Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack, an Aleut Native who fishes for both subsistence and commercial use, also agreed. "We need to move forward. If the process stops now, you are telling the local people that they don't matter. We've worked too hard. Lifting the ban will allow us to get a full environmental impact statement."

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