A vast bay dubbed the “golden triangle” for its unparalleled abundance of fish and game may be spared oil exploration because of the catastrophic effects of the Exxon spill on Prince William Sound.
Three Alaska governors and the stubborn fishermen of Bristol Bay have appealed to three presidents for a ban on drilling in the world’s richest red salmon grounds.
For 10 years, the powerful of Washington brushed aside the pleas of complainers who lived far, far away. Last year, nine oil companies paid the federal government $95.4 million for rights to explore the bay for oil and gas deposits.
This year, everything’s different. Now the 4,500 people of Bristol Bay, a 44,000-square-mile marine paradise that is even richer than Prince William Sound, are pleading their case again, hoping the wreck of the tanker Exxon Valdez will prompt President Bush to hand back that money.
With millions of fish threatened, thousands of birds dying and hundreds of sea otters dead in Prince William Sound, the fishermen of western Alaska suddenly have environmental clout and renewed attention to their cause.
Spill’s Fringe Benefit
“I hate to say it, but without a doubt the (Exxon) spill may help us save Bristol Bay,” Sue Flensburg, executive director of the Bristol Bay Coastal Resource Service Area, said.
Until the tanker struck a reef and was split open last month, the outraged voices in Bristol Bay, 450 miles southwest of Prince William Sound, were literally crying in the wilderness.
Oil-company assurances of environmental integrity and safety had consistently won out.
“They always dangled their success in front of us,” said Deborah Tennyson, executive director of the Bristol Bay Native Assn.
“The oil companies and the feds said, ‘You’re psychotic, you’re paranoid; we’ve shipped millions of gallons of oil out of Valdez, we’ve got caribou grazing under the pipeline; little chicks are being born at Prudhoe Bay and the whales come back year after year to Prince William Sound.’
“Well, a massive oil spill is like nuclear war,” said Tennyson, who fishes with her family during salmon season.
“If it happens once it would be so horrible that saying, ‘Sorry, we’ll never do it again,’ doesn’t mean a damned thing. If something like this happened in Bristol Bay it would be a cultural, economic and social holocaust.”
Paradise of Wildlife
Besides the world’s largest red salmon fishery and the largest herring fishery in U.S. waters, Bristol Bay also is home to a majority of the world’s northern fur seals, Pacific gray whales and millions of sea birds, geese and ducks.
To most Alaskans, the arguments for exempting Bristol Bay boil down to pure economics. A barrel of oil is worth about $20; most of the year, a nine-pound Bristol Bay red salmon retails in Anchorage for $74.25. Salmon is more plentiful than oil here, they say, and it is a resource that renews itself.
Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper claims that Bristol Bay’s wholesale fishery value exceeds $1 billion and employs 10,000 people in a good year.
“It’s always been obvious to us that our annual, renewable resources far outweigh any potential oil and gas gains,” Flensburg said. “Once oil is gone, it’s gone forever, but our fish come back every year. Why can’t the federal government understand that?”
The oil companies have pressed ahead with Bristol Bay plans even though surveys have found that oil deposits there are limited at best, and although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned in 1978 that no safeguards could be adequate to protect Bristol Bay because of its strong tidal currents, severe winds, earthquakes and heavy ice.
Patches for Prospecting
Geologists have identified 10 patches of ocean bottom in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas, totaling 480 million acres, as potential oil and gas fields.
The Interior Department pegs Bristol Bay’s hydrocarbon potential in the Bering Sea as among the lowest in that area. It has perhaps no more than 2% of the nation’s undiscovered offshore resources.
Experts estimate that the area contains between 63 million and 615 million barrels of oil; the Prudhoe Bay fields that feed the trans-Alaska pipeline are estimated to hold 10 billion barrels of oil.
At most, Bristol Bay oil could supply the nation only for about a month.
Alaska officials, acutely aware that oil royalties now account for more than 80% of the state’s revenue, long ago learned to coexist with the multinational companies and federal regulators.
Although state coffers don’t gain a cent from drilling outside Alaska’s three-mile limit, former Governors Jay Hammond and Bill Sheffield, as well as Cowper, all supported the leasing--except for those in Bristol Bay.
But Alaska’s effort to exclude Bristol Bay from lease sales was stymied by the reluctance of its own congressional delegation to oppose any exploration, and by the adamant opposition of two presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
State Turns to Courts
With nearly unanimous support from environmentalists and fishermen, Alaska turned to the courts for help.
“This region is commonly referred to as the ‘golden triangle,’ ” wrote Lance Trasky of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, during the lengthy litigation. “These fish and wildlife resources have great social and economic value . . . to the world.”
Last October, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor rejected the state’s appeal. Immediately thereafter, bids were opened and 23 tracts were leased by nine oil companies at an average price of $783.87 an acre.
Shell Western E&P; and Chevron USA, the two big winners, announced plans to begin surveying as early as this summer, with drilling to follow as soon as permits were obtained.
In a last-ditch appeal to Bush 24 days before the Prince William Sound disaster, Cowper wrote a letter urging the President to defer leasing long enough to study the potential environmental impact of an oil spill in Bristol Bay.
So far, Cowper has had no reply from the White House.
The Alaska state Senate last week unanimously passed a resolution urging the federal government to hold up Bristol Bay exploration.
Hammond, the former governor and a Bristol Bay resident, agrees that the politicians and oil companies have been listening to Alaskans for years, but not hearing them.
Like many, he believes that the Prince William Sound disaster “may be the death knell to Bristol Bay leasing.”
As a battle-scarred veteran of two decades of Alaskan political infighting, the man who was governor throughout the building of the trans-Alaska pipeline is also a realist.
“I am optimistic there is a substantially greater impediment to Bristol Bay leasing today,” Hammond said, “but I am not optimistic it will never be done. After all, this is Alaska.”
Unhappily, Dillingham Mayor Joe McGill agreed.
“I liked living here so much better before electricity, taxes, and lawyers,” McGill said with a sigh.
“When the oil companies are really ready to do it, they’ll do it. Hell, they’re a lot bigger than a bunch of fishermen--and money in Alaska always talks.”