Protecting Bristol Bay Was an Easy Call for Obama. The Hard Ones Come Next.

The Obama administration is weighing decisions on the future of oil drilling off Alaska’s coast.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers speaks at the 2013 Tribal Nations Conference held at the Department of Interior Building on November 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama meet with leaders of 566 Native American tribes earlier in the day at teh White House.
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Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Dec. 17, 2014, 2:20 a.m.

Late Tues­day af­ter­noon, Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced he would in­def­in­itely ex­tend his ban on oil drilling in Bris­tol Bay off Alaska’s south­ern coast. The bay is a big com­mer­cial fish­ing re­gion, in­clud­ing the world’s largest sock­eye sal­mon runs, and provides hab­it­at for fra­gile whale spe­cies and oth­er wild­life.

“It is something that is too pre­cious for us to just be put­ting out to the highest bid­der,” the pres­id­ent said in a video mes­sage.

Un­like most fed­er­al de­cisions about where oil com­pan­ies can and can’t drill, this one was rather un­con­tro­ver­sial.

Ma­jor busi­ness and in­dustry groups gen­er­ally held their fire or had a low-key re­sponse, though the Na­tion­al Ocean In­dus­tries As­so­ci­ation knocked Obama for “uni­lat­er­ally re­mov­ing areas from con­sid­er­a­tion” without fully know­ing their re­source po­ten­tial. Even GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who has long ac­cused Obama of keep­ing drilling rigs away from too many lands and wa­ters, this time offered only a cri­ti­cism of his pro­cess—not the sub­stance of the de­cision.

“What I do not un­der­stand is why this de­cision could not be made with­in the con­text of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s up­com­ing plan for off­shore leas­ing, or at least an­nounced at the same time,” said Murkowski, who will head the Sen­ate’s En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee next year. She noted the oil in­dustry’s “lack of in­terest” in the Bay.

But when it comes to battles over drilling off Alaska’s Arc­tic north­ern coast, far away from Bris­tol Bay, a slew of more con­ten­tious policy de­cisions awaits.

In one case, the In­teri­or De­part­ment is craft­ing long-awaited drilling safety rules for oil ex­plor­a­tion in the the Arc­tic seas off Alaska, a re­gion that In­teri­or es­tim­ates could con­tain more than 23 bil­lion bar­rels of re­cov­er­able oil.

The Beaufort and Chuk­chi seas, un­like Bris­tol Bay, are coveted by some of the world’s most power­ful en­ergy com­pan­ies (al­though the re­cent col­lapse in crude-oil prices could cool in­terest in costly Arc­tic pro­jects as com­pan­ies cut ex­penses).

In­teri­or sent a draft of the pro­posed reg­u­la­tion to the White House for re­view in Au­gust.

Since then, lob­by­ists for Shell, which has been the most ag­gress­ive in seek­ing to drill in the Arc­tic, and Cono­co­Phil­lips have held closed-door meet­ings with the ad­min­is­tra­tion to press their ar­gu­ment that the rules should avoid what they call overly pre­script­ive man­dates.

Then there are de­cisions In­teri­or could face about Shell’s spe­cif­ic pro­pos­als to drill off Alaska’s north­ern coast. The com­pany is weigh­ing an ef­fort to re­turn to the re­gion as soon as next sum­mer after a mis­hap-laden ini­tial de­vel­op­ment at­tempt in 2012.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion is fa­cing oth­er big de­cisions when it comes to Arc­tic oil drilling.

One is the scope and par­tic­u­lars of the next auc­tions of Arc­tic off­shore-drilling leases, which are tent­at­ively sched­uled for 2016 and 2017. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, dur­ing its first term, scuttled sev­er­al Arc­tic lease sales that were planned for 2009-12 un­der a Bush-era sched­ule.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists want the 2016 and 2017 lease sales scrapped out­right, too. They say de­vel­op­ment in the Arc­tic seas—home to po­lar bears, bowhead whales, and oth­er en­dangered or fra­gile spe­cies—is too risky.

And look­ing fur­ther ahead, In­teri­or is cur­rently craft­ing its next five-year plan for oil-and-gas lease sales in fed­er­al wa­ters, which will cov­er the years 2017-22.

The agency faces du­el­ing pres­sure from oil in­dustry trade groups and en­vir­on­ment­al­ists over wheth­er to in­clude Arc­tic wa­ters in the plan.

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