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Bush Urged to Maintain Drilling Ban in Alaska's Bristol Bay

A coalition of Alaska Natives, fishermen and environmental groups sent an "open letter" Wednesday to President Bush, urging him not to remove the presidential ban on oil and natural gas drilling in the pristine, fisheries-rich Bristol Bay.

"We...urge you in the strongest possible terms not to lift the presidential withdrawal prohibiting offshore oil and gas development in the North Aleutian Basin, which encompasses Bristol Bay and a portion of the southeastern Bering Sea," wrote the 31-member coalition, which includes the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association, Alaska Marine Conservation Council, Alaska Wilderness League, Chignik Bay Tribal Council, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society.

"We urge you to continue the history of protection for what is arguably one of the most important and sensitive areas of the nation's Outer Continental Shelf [OCS]. We also request your help in working with Congress to reinstate the bipartisan moratorium on offshore oil and gas development in Bristol Bay that had, until 2003, been in effect for more than a decade," the group said.

The presidential ban "now stands as the last line of defense" for the Bristol Bay area, the coalition wrote.

Bristol Bay, located in the southwestern corner of Alaska, had been under a congressional ban on oil and gas drilling since 1989. In 1998, then-President Clinton issued an executive order reinforcing the ban on Bristol Bay and other coastal areas until 2012. That ban can only be revoked by a presidential executive order. Congress dropped its moratorium on drilling in Bristol Bay in 2003.

Reports have been rampant in Washington, DC over the past week that Bush plans to issue an executive order lifting the ban on drilling in Bristol Bay. Kevin Sweeney, a spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said he had heard the reports, but could not confirm their accuracy. "There also has been a rumor that our office has been pushing him [Bush] to do it. I can say that that is definitely not the case," he told NGI. "I can't speak for the rest of the [Alaska] delegation."

The Minerals Management Service (MMS) this year included the North Aleutian Basin, of which Bristol Bay is part, for possible lease sales in its proposed five-year (2007-2012) leasing program for the federal OCS.

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 Interior Department's 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.

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