Nature and wildlife lovers can all breathe a little easier now. The Biden administration has announced it is canceling a proposed oil and gas lease sale in the beautiful federal waters of Cook Inlet, Alaska. This decision interrupts a lease sale of 1 million acres of waters west of the Kenai Peninsula, a place that supports the highest concentration of brown bears on the planet. It’s surrounded by important state and federal protected areas, including Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks, the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge, and Kachemak Bay State Park and Critical Habitat Area.

In the Environmental Impact Statement, experts predicted there was a 19% chance that one or more large (more than 42,000 gallons) oil spills would occur if the sale went through. Sea conditions, ice, temperatures, high waves, large tides and currents make clean-up efforts here even more difficult than in other locations. A spill would very likely end up on the west coast at the beaches of Katmai and Lake Clark, where Alaska’s thriving bear tourism economy is located.

Brown Bear in Katmai, Alaska

© Eric Rock

Cook Inlet Conflict: Industry vs. Conservation

The decision to halt the sale, not surprisingly, generated backlash among industry supporters and some politicians in Alaska who said that with oil and gas prices soaring, domestic oil and gas prospects should not be taken off the table. Biden has also recently paused oil and gas activity in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge pending further review, and in March he dramatically scaled back drilling opportunities in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. But people who want to see current fuel prices go down often fail to realize that oil companies don’t get rapid payoffs for their investments in Alaska. There are massive upfront costs and often a decade-long wait until the first oil flows, meaning that a lease sale in Cook Inlet this year wasn’t going to reduce current high prices at the gas pump.

“Selling new offshore leases that won’t produce oil for years is not a solution to today’s gas prices, but it would lock in new infrastructure that is incompatible with our moral responsibility to leave a habitable planet for our kids,” said Alex Taurel, conservation program director for The League of Conservation Voters.

Rich Ruggiero, a former longtime oil and gas analyst for the Alaska Legislature and Alaska governor’s administrations, said the decision shows the Biden administration has failed to adopt a reasonable energy policy. It’s trying to force renewable energy to rapidly replace fossil fuels like oil and gas, he said.

But conservation groups don’t see that as a bad thing. “The decision to protect our local sustainable economies by not locking Cook Inlet into 40-plus years of exploration and drilling for carbon-based fuels is a critical step to combat the climate crisis.” said Liz Mering, advocacy director at Cook Inletkeeper. Alaska is a vital gateway to a clean energy economy. With five active volcanoes, major tidal swings and consistently heavy winds, Cook Inlet has world-class renewable energy potential.

Alaska’s Climate Crisis—Can Sustainable Tourism Help?

The climate crisis in Alaska is undeniable. The average annual temperature in Alaska has risen 2.5 to 6.2 degrees F over the past 50 years. Sea ice is melting, permafrost is thawing and rapidly rising temperatures are already hurting Alaska’s fisheries of pacific cod, snow crab and salmon. Just recently in 2019, federal managers were forced to close the Pacific Cod fishery in Cook Inlet because of climate change.

Sustainable nature tourism in such a pristine place is a way to boost the economy outside of the reliance on producing fossil fuels. A trip to the Kenai Peninsula in the Alaskan wilderness spreads an important message that this is a place that has value far greater and lasting than oil. This is a place where brown bears fish with their cubs for salmon right in front of your eyes and where a dwindling population of beluga whales still feel safe and nurtured enough to call the Cook Inlet their year-round home.

Beluga Whale, Alaska

There were over 50 public hearing testimonies and thousands of petition signatures in opposition to the sale by locals who feel strongly about protecting their region and the wildlife within it.

Liz Mering of Cook Inletkeeper shares this message: “This would not be possible without you! We know that if you all had not stood up and told the Department what you wanted for our future—a future of strong sustainable economies—we would not be here today. These words feel so inadequate for our gratitude. Let’s enjoy this victory for our waters, fish, businesses and sustainable economies.”