WASHINGTON (CN) - President Obama has taken action to preserve Alaska's Bristol Bay from oil and gas drilling. Noting that the bay is known for its world-class fisheries and incredible beauty, the president said, "It's something that is too precious for us to be putting out to the highest bidder," in the video that accompanied Wednesday's announcement.
However, while new oil and gas exploration, development and production are off the table for the bay and an area near the Aleutian islands, "rights under existing leases in this area," are not affected, according to the action.
Bristol Bay, on the southwest coast of Alaska, produces 40 percent of the nation's wild-caught seafood every year, while supporting an annual $2 billion fishing industry and a robust sport fishing and tourism industry. Site of the largest sockeye salmon runs in the world, the bay also provides habitat for endangered North Pacific right whales, and many threatened marine mammal species.
The George W. Bush Administration promoted a lease sale slated for 2011 to open 5.6 million acres of the Bristol Bay region for oil and gas drilling, but President Obama withdrew the area on a temporary basis in 2010 under authority of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. That action was due to expire in 2017.
The current action extends the protection indefinitely, and it comprehensively prevents oil or gas leasing for exploration, development or production, according to the announcement. Other presidents "on both sides of the aisle" have used this executive power to protect offshore areas from oil and gas leasing, according to a White House fact sheet. President Eisenhower used it in 1960 to protect the area that now includes the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
"The President's action caps decades of work from the community to protect the region's economic and cultural heritage," Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in her press release, which credited the efforts of local fishermen and residents to protect the bay. "[The] action is in many ways a result of their passion for and stewardship of this special place and puts the threat of future drilling finally to rest." "It's a big deal," she noted. "We got it done."
The current five-year leasing program for federal offshore waters developed by the Department of Interior expires in 2017. The DOI's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is currently working on the 2017-2022 leasing program, and the public will have an opportunity to submit comments, according to the White House press release.
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