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Bush lifts moratorium on drilling in parts of Alaska, Gulf of Mexico

[JURIST] President Bush has cleared the way for drilling of oil and natural gas in parts of Bristol Bay, Alaska, and the central Gulf of Mexico [US Interior Dept. maps, PDF]. In a memorandum [text] to the secretary of interior dated Tuesday, Bush modified a moratorium [US Minerals Management Service fact sheet, PDF] that President Clinton imposed in 1998, forbidding drilling leases in those areas through 2012. In a press release [text], Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said that "[t]ogether, these actions will enhance America's energy security by improving opportunities for domestic energy production, and will also increase the revenues that the federal government collects from oil and gas companies on behalf of American taxpayers." The secretary said both areas would undergo "thorough environmental reviews," including public comment and an environmental impact statement, and noted that new leases for deep-water oil and gas drilling will carry a royalty rate of 16.7 percent, rather than 12.5 percent.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin welcomed the lifting of the Bristol Bay moratorium, a move that had been sought by the previous governor and other local politicians. "If we can be sure it will not threaten the fisheries that are the foundation of the region's economy and way of life, I'm all for it," she said in a press release [text]. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) [advocacy website], meanwhile, was among environmental groups that lamented the change. "I am very disappointed with the president's action today. Bristol Bay should be off the table for drilling," WWF managing director Bill Eichbaum said in a press release [text]. He pledged that WWF would work to resurrect a congressional moratorium on drilling in Bristol Bay, which was in place from 1990 until its expiration in 2004.

Under a provision of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act [text; backgrounder], the president may withdraw from leasing any parts of the outer Continental Shelf [MMS backgrounder], as Clinton did. Congress sanctioned drilling leases in the Gulf late last year when it considered the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act [JURIST report], which was signed by President Bush. According to the Interior Department, a final environmental impact statement on oil and gas leases for 2007-2012 is expected in the spring. AP has more. Environmental News Service has additional coverage. The Anchorage Daily News has local coverage.

This report was prepared in partnership with the Pittsburgh Journal of Environmental and Public Health Law.

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