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WWF Opposes Interior Department Push For Offshore Drilling in Bristol Bay

ANCHORAGE, AK -Today's announcement by the Department of the Interior inviting offshore oil and gas drilling at the heart of Alaska's Bering Sea fishery could undermine commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries throughout the region, warned World Wildlife Fund (WWF).  The action also puts marine mammal and migratory bird habitat at unacceptable risk.

The Interior Department published a "Call for Nominations" today in the Federal Register, soliciting oil company interest in drilling offshore in the 5.6 million acre "North Aleutian Basin." The proposed lease area lies at the heart 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 World Wildlife Fund’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 (MMS) five year plan. It is time for MMS to listen to sound science and halt this lease sale.”

The Administration’s rush to transfer 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 in Bristol Bay violates the legal requirements set forth in the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act,” said Francis Grant-Suttie, WWF’s Director Oil, Gas and International Finance. “Bristol Bay is one of those places that should not be for sale.”

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 in Bristol Bay 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 a bi-partisan effort is underway in Congress to permanently prohibit oil in gas development in the region. The Bristol Bay Protection Act (H.R. 1957) introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Inslee (D-Wash.), Rep Gilchrest (R - Md.), and Rep. Hinchey (D - N.Y.) 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 Margaret 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.