By LIZ RUSKIN
Anchorage Daily News
July 27, 2005
The White House proposal, a suggested addition to the pending national energy bill, would require a federal lease sale in Bristol Bay, as well as others in the Gulf of Mexico.
The specific proposal, which also includes a revenue-sharing plan with the states, was dead on arrival in Congress last week, said Chuck Kleeschulte, an aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. Murkowski is on the bill negotiating committee, which finished its work Tuesday.
Kleeschulte characterized the idea as a trial balloon floated by the White House officials.
The Bush administration stumped for the offshore drilling plan over the weekend. Interior Secretary Gale Norton issued a press release Saturday in support of it.
She said the offshore proposal is "consistent with the administration's pledge to only allow new oil and gas leasing off of states that express support for it. "
Whether Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski supports offshore drilling in Bristol Bay was unclear Monday. He wants to hear from local residents and the industry before he takes a position, said his spokeswoman, Rebecca Hultberg.
She said the governor is concentrating on the state's onshore lease sale in that area, scheduled for October. She later added that he also supports directional drilling to tap deposits under the bay from land-based facilities.
Oil and gas development in Bristol Bay has long been contentious and was once adamantly opposed by commercial fishermen and others in that region. After the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Congress adopted a ban on federal oil lease sales there.
Since then, the market for Bristol Bay salmon has weakened and many local groups have endorsed onshore oil development to boost the economy. Offshore development, though, is more controversial.
Still, Congress ended its moratorium on offshore drilling last year.
A presidential moratorium - a withdrawal of Bristol Bay from the areas open to oil leasing - is in effect but apparently not popular in the Bush administration.
The administration's offshore proposal, which began circulating widely Friday, is in an e-mail from Bryan Hannegan, an associate director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. In it he said the proposed drilling in Bristol Bay and the Gulf of Mexico "would allow access to over 2 billion barrels of new oil resources and over 16 trillion cubic feet of new natural gas reserves."
It would generate $680 million in federal funds over the next decade, Hannegan wrote. Both the Interior Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget "have signed off on this language," he wrote.
According to the White House proposal, 12.5 percent of federal revenues would be distributed to the states with drilling off their shores. Most of the new fund - 63 percent - would go to Louisiana. Alaska would get 5 percent.
Sen. Murkowski said last month that she wants the president to continue the current exclusion of Bristol Bay from the areas open to leasing. That is still her position, her spokesman said.
Jim Ayers, head of the Alaska office of the environmental group Oceana, said the episode reflects a disregard for marine ecosystems.
"This (Bush) administration could care less about ocean resources, including this nation's richest salmon resource," he said.
If the administration lifts the ban on offshore leasing in Bristol Bay, the area would likely be included in the administration's next five-year leasing plan, predicted Dorothy Childers, director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
Such conclusions are unwarranted, according to a spokesman for Norton.
"To my knowledge no decision to amend the presidential withdrawal has been made, " Shane Wolfe said. In any case, the administration would give great deference to the desires of a state regarding drilling off that state's shores, he said.
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