Bristol Bay’s waters are rich with one of the largest salmon runs on the planet, half of the sockeye population globally, both which not only provide hundreds of millions of dollars in recreational fishing and tourism, but also hosts 40 percent of the nation’s supply of seafood, creating a two billion dollar commercial fishing industry. However, our dependency on oil has created a historic challenge between the two industries. The previous administration had set in motion plans to open 5.6 million acres of surrounding land for drilling in 2011, and in 2008, leased oil sales in the Chukchi Sea north of Bristol Bay. Obama temporarily placed a moratorium withdrawing the area from oil and gas development in 2010 just after BP’s Deep Water Horizon drilling disaster occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. That was set to expire in 2017, and today’s action extends that protection indefinitely.
President Eisenhower was the first president to use executive order to preserve lands from drilling in 1960 under the authority of section 12 of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, authorizing the president the power to withdraw potential oil and gas leasing.
Still, another ongoing battle for fishermen in the area is a potential gold and copper mine, the “Pebble Mine,” which is unaffected by this protection. The Pebble Mine proposal is exempt from this protection because it’s land-based. However, it has seen strong opposition from the EPA under the Clean Water Act. EPA scientists believe that a giant, open-pit mine, along with a 700ft dam would damage vital spawning grounds. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy announced earlier this year that her agency investigated what impact waste from the mine would have on the ecosystem at the request of Native Alaskan tribes in the region. A three year peer-reviewed study revealed that even without incidents of spills or leaks, the mine itself still presented a harmful threat to the nations most productive watershed. Depending on the size of the mine, 24 to 94 miles of salmon-supporting streams and 1,300-5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds and streams would be destroyed. In addition to the destruction caused by the project, a transportation corridor to support the mine would cross wetlands and about 64 streams and rivers in the Kvichak watershed, 55 of which are known or likely to support salmon.
The executive order not only protects the region from drilling, but draws national attention to the effort of opposition to the Pebble Mine proposal. In November, nearly two-thirds of Alaskans voted in favor of ballot measure 4, giving the state legislature power to approve or reject the Pebble Mine proposal. State and federal agencies have to approve the proposal as well, after the legislature would have to conclude that the project would not harm the region’s fishing industry. The mine would be one of the largest of it’s kind in the world, creating 10.8 billion tons of waste rock, requiring dams to store the waste liquid from the mining operation.
Pebble Limited partnership tried to sue the EPA in September, but the lawsuit was thrown out by an Alaskan judge. Due to strong opposition, London-based mining company Rio Tinto dropped it’s 19.1 percent stake in the mine, following similar decisions by the Mitsubishi Corporation in 2011 and mining company Anglo-American in 2013. In 2010, 50 jewelers joined the opposition by pledging not to purchase or use gold from the Pebble Mine if the project moved forward. Alaska Senator Mark Begich (D) has opposed the project, but his Republican opponent Dan Sullivan, an advocate for the Pebble Mine, won Begich’s senate seat in the election this past November.
If you would like to join the opposition of the Pebble Mine and preserve Alaska’s abundant aquatic wilderness, Trout Unlimited is one of many organizations of stewards fighting to protect Alaska’s natural heritage. You can find out more about taking action against the mining proposal by visiting their website: www.savebristolbay.org
This piece was published by the Good Men Project on December 17th, 2014