- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2014

President Obama declared a swath of Alaskan coastline off-limits to oil and gas leasing Tuesday, in a move the White House said would protect fisheries and wildlife but which brought a muted complaint from the state’s Republican senator over how the decision was made.

The president designated the waters of Bristol Bay exempt from energy exploration indefinitely, extending protections that were set to expire after he leaves office in 2017. He took similar temporary action in 2010.

In a statement, the White House said Mr. Obama was exerting his authority under section 12 of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, “which gives the president authority to withdraw offshore areas from potential oil and gas leasing.”

The White House said the area supports a $2 billion annual fishing industry and serves as habitat for threatened sea otters, walruses and whales. It said Bristol Bay is also vital to tourism and to Alaska native communities.

The debate over oil and gas development in Bristol Bay goes back decades. The government held lease sales under President Reagan in 1986. But after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, Congress banned drilling in Bristol Bay.

President Clinton added a moratorium on Bristol Bay drilling in 1995. Congress moved to allow exploration in 2003, and President George W. Bush pushed for a lease sale.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, said in a statement Tuesday that she wasn’t objecting to the move “given the lack of interest by industry and the public divide over allowing oil and gas exploration in this area.” But she said the decision should have been made when the administration releases its upcoming five-year plan for offshore leasing.

“It is incredibly frustrating that this administration looks at Alaska — with oil production at a fraction of the level it could be at, and with low oil prices about to force steep across-the-board budget cuts — and decides that conservation is our most pressing need,” Mrs. Murkowski said. “We are not asking to produce everywhere — but right now, we are not being allowed to produce anywhere.”

Mrs. Murkowski’s opinion will count for a lot more in 2015 — Senate Republicans confirmed this week she will take over as chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee when the new GOP majority is seated in January.

She said energy development is being blocked in four other vast regions of the state.

“What we need are decisions to open lands and waters in Alaska, not the familiar and frustrating pattern of shutting everything down,” she said.

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