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MMS Takes Initial Steps Toward 2011 Bristol Bay Lease Sale

The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) has begun information-gathering to carry out the controversial Lease Sale 214 in southern Bristol Bay of the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area in Alaska, which is tentatively scheduled for 2011, the MMS said last Tuesday.

The agency issued a call for information and nominations and a notice of intent (NOI) to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the proposed Alaska offshore sale. The purpose of the call is to gather nominations and information for the proposed sale, while the EIS analysis will focus on the potential environmental effects of oil and gas exploration, development and production in the sale area.

Comments are being sought from all interested parties about particular geological (including natural hazard areas), environmental, biological, archaeological and socioeconomic conditions or potential conflicts or other information that might bear upon the potential leasing, exploration and development of the proposed sale area.

The area is located in southern Bristol Bay and extends offshore from about 10 statute miles to approximately 120 statute miles, in water depths from approximately 40 feet (12 meters) to 120 feet (37 meters), according to a notice published in the Federal Register. Interior's 2007-2012 leasing program includes options for one or two lease sales in a small portion of the North Aleutian Basin, which consists of approximately 990 whole and partial blocks totaling about 5.6 million acres.

The North Aleutian 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 bbl.

The MMS cautioned that its announcement is not a firm commitment to hold the lease sale, but rather is a continuation of the information-gathering and evaluation process.

One day after the MMS announcement, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) fired back, noting that offshore oil and gas drilling at the heart of Alaska's Bering Sea fishery could undermine commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries throughout the region. The WWF added that the action also puts marine mammal and migratory bird habitat at "unacceptable risk."

The WWF contends that the proposed lease area lies in the middle of the Bering Sea commercial fishery and includes critically important habitat for crab, pollock and salmon. The Bering Sea fishery is valued in excess of $2 billion annually.

"Drilling for oil and gas in Bristol Bay risks polluting one of the most productive fisheries in the country and placing people's livelihoods in jeopardy," said Margaret Williams, managing director of WWF's Kamchatka/Bering Sea Program. "The Bush administration's Commerce Department scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service agree and recommended that the North Aleutian Basin planning area be deleted from the current Minerals Management Service five-year plan. It is time for MMS to listen to sound science and halt this lease sale."

The WWF added that the administration's rush to drill in Alaska's offshore areas is "unprecedented" and "ignores safeguards" established to protect irreplaceable habitat and resources. "The decision to allow drilling for oil and gas violates the legal requirements set forth in the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act," said Francis Grant-Suttie, WWF's director of Oil, Gas and International Finance. "Bristol Bay is one of those places that should not be for sale."

The fund said the action opens the door to a long list of environmental threats including seismic exploration, contaminated discharges, infrastructure construction and increased vessel traffic that pose risks to the region's fish, marine mammals, seabirds and migratory waterfowl. Bristol Bay's notorious winds, powerful seas, variable ice and cold temperatures have led MMS to predict that drilling would result in at least one major oil spill, in addition to numerous smaller spills.

As the administration moves forward to sell oil and gas leases in Bristol Bay, the WWF noted that a bipartisan effort is under way in Congress to permanently prohibit oil and gas development in the region. The Bristol Bay Protection Act (H.R. 1957) introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA), Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) and Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) has 41 co-sponsors. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) introduced the companion bill in the Senate.

"Congress and the president created layers of protection for Bristol Bay from oil and gas development in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster nearly 20 years ago," said Williams. "Those protections have been systematically peeled away. It's time we worked together to secure this national treasure."

The final transfer of offshore drilling rights in Bristol Bay to the oil industry has been scheduled for 2011 by the Interior Department.

The MMS action comes 15 months after President Bush lifted the ban on drilling in the Bristol Bay area in the North Aleutian Basin of Alaska and the 181 South area in the Central Gulf of Mexico, giving the Interior Department the option to offer producers leases in these areas as part of its five-year oil and natural gas leasing program for 2007-2012 (see NGI, Jan. 15, 2007).

In 1998 then-President Clinton issued an executive order reinforcing the ban on drilling in the Bristol Bay area, most of the eastern Gulf of Mexico (part of which has since been redesignated the Central Gulf) and other coastal areas until 2012. By his action, Bush loosened the drilling prohibitions against exploration and production in the Bristol Bay area, located off the southwestern corner of Alaska, and the 181 South area in the Central Gulf.

Nominations and comments on the call, as well as comments on the NOI, are due at MMS by July 7. For further information, contact Cleve Cowles, regional supervisor of the MMS Office of Leasing and Environment, Alaska OCS Region, at (907) 334-5233.

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