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US may lift drilling ban in Alaska's Bristol Bay

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is considering lifting a ban on oil and gas drilling in federal waters off Alaska's Bristol Bay, home to endangered whales and sea lions and the world's largest sockeye salmon run.

Leasing in a portion of area rich in oil and natural gas ended nearly two decades ago -- while Bush's father was president -- in the outcry after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

But with natural gas prices higher, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service proposed reopening up the North Aleutian Basin. That includes Bristol Bay and part of southeastern Bering Sea.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel confirmed yesterday that the president was considering taking that step.

Environmentalists oppose drilling there because of the potential for oil spills and harm to wildlife. "If the Bush administration decides to allow drilling in Bristol Bay, it will simply illustrate the level to which they will sink to satisfy big oil," Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, said.

The Minerals Management Service said in its August proposal that reopening energy development in the basin's federal waters, extending between 3 miles and 200 miles offshore, could produce $7.7 billion in oil and gas production and up to 11,500 jobs.

Some 200 million barrels of crude oil, about what the US imports every 16 days, are thought to be there. The agency estimates the region could yield 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas -- a quarter of all US annual production.

Fourteen companies are said to be interested. The agency cited support among more than a dozen local and tribal governments nearby who believe the drilling would boost their economy. Lease payments go to the government.

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