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Andrew Burger headshot

President Bans Oil and Gas Drilling in Bristol Bay Indefinitely


President Barack Obama took executive action yesterday evening, Dec. 16, to protect Alaska's Bristol Bay, instituting an indefinite ban on oil and gas drilling across some 5.6 million acres in what's known as the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area.

One of the world's most economically valuable fishing grounds, the waters of Bristol Bay yield up to $2 billion worth of wild-caught seafood every year. Visiting to partake of Bristol Bay's natural splendor, recreational fishing and tourism adds another $100 million a year to Alaska's economy and communities. Home to an American fishing fleet and community that supplies 40 percent of U.S. wild-caught seafood, one of the economic and social pillars of the community is Bristol Bay's salmon run – the world's largest – as well as a bevy of endangered marine and terrestrial species of plants and animals.

President Obama's latest executive action assures that the Bristol Bay ecosystem will not be threatened by oil and gas drilling.  Further, it ensures local communities and businesses can continue to pursue eco-based livelihoods and lifestyles that reach back generations. Far above Bristol Bay, another environmental threat persists, however: the massive open-pit Pebble Mine project.

Why protect Bristol Bay from oil & gas drilling?

In text and stunning photos, White House correspondent Tanya Somanader clearly and succinctly lays out the economic, social and ecological attributes that make Bristol Bay and environs a national treasure and “one of Alaska's most powerful economic engines.” It's these attributes that led President Obama to take executive action.

In 2010, the George W. Bush administration set a new lease that would have opened up about a fifth of the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area that includes Bristol Bay – some 5.6 million acres – to oil and gas exploration and drilling. President Obama temporarily withdrew the lease offer in 2011.

With his Dec. 16 executive action he has extended that ban indefinitely. Upon signing the Presidential Memorandum, the president stated:

"These waters are too special and too valuable to auction off to the highest bidder."

The Pebble Mine

Another environmental threat lies up above in the headwaters that flow down into Bristol Bay. This past March, the EPA put a temporary halt to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approving permit that would have allowed the Pebble Limited Partnership to move ahead with its plans to develop the Pebble Mine.

The scope and scale of the Pebble Mine Partnership's development plan is humongous, as would be its effect on ecosystems across the area and far beyond. As is typical of such deposits, the actual copper, gold and molybdenum-bearing minerals are disseminated thinly throughout the vast area of bedrock. Northern Dynasty Minerals, now Pebble Mine Partnership's sole major partner, envisages a five-year construction phase followed by an initial 25 years of production. Three subsequent development phases of 20 years each remain a possibility.

The legal process is still being played out. On Dec. 4, a federal judge in Anchorage “ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cease all work pertaining to its investigation of whether to block development of Alaska's controversial Pebble Mine,” Tim Sohn reported in the Huffington Post.

Senior Judge for the U.S. District Court in Alaska, H. Russell Holland, deemed there was enough in the Pebble Limited Partnership's assertion that EPA employed “an anti-mine team of experts” to conduct its investigations to warrant upholding a preliminary injunction he had issued on Nov. 24.

Noting the injunction was preliminary, the EPA said it was complying, and it welcomed the establishment of “a swift schedule to move forward.” “We are confident in our case and look forward to a prompt resolution,” the EPA stated.

As Sohn pointed out: “While the injunction represents a rare win for Pebble, the mine’s future prospects remain murky." This past April, Northern Dynasty Minerals, the owner of the Pebble Mine project's mineral rights, lost the financial and technical support of multinational mining giant Rio Tinto, the Pebble Mine project's last remaining major backer.

Where we stand

3p is an Internet media organization, a collection of like-minded Web publishers, marketers, editors and writers that depend on the Internet and information and communications technology (ICT) for their livelihoods. Without metals such as the copper and gold that Pebble Mine owners propose to exploit, we would have to find other means of earning a living, or at least another means of doing what we do.

That said, 3p is all about helping identify and share means of doing business in ways that are sustainable – ecologically and socially as well as economically. In other words, businesses based on the triple bottom line. To further identify and align with these motivating and informing values, 3p's founders registered the business as a B Corporation (B Corp.).

We've been following developments at Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine rather closely. While we are acutely aware of our and modern society's dependence on metals and mineral resources, we believe there are steps mining companies can and should take to minimize its negative environmental impacts and assure ecosystems are restored once mining operations cease.

Furthermore, mining companies can and should assure local people and communities participate in any and all decisions regarding mineral resource exploration and development, and that their health and livelihoods are protected and assured. We stand with those in Bristol Bay and the EPA that seek to assure that current and future generations can revel in and benefit from the natural wonders the Bristol Bay ecosystem and watershed affords.

*Image credits: 1) Alaska Conservation Foundation; 2) The White House; 3) EPA, Pebble Mine Bristol Bay Assessment; 4) PeriodicTable.com

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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