With a flourish of his pen, President Obama signed a presidential memorandum putting 30 million acres of Alaska's North Aleutian Basin off limits to oil and natural gas drilling.

"These waters are too special and too valuable to auction off to the highest bidder," President Obama said in a video statement.

Included in the land grab, is Alaska's Bristol Bay — the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery and possible home to the contentious Pebble Mine. In 2010, Obama temporarily banned oil and gas drilling around Bristol Bay, but his memorandum signed yesterday puts the area off limits indefinitely.

This action comes after the Obama administration declared 266 million acres – twice the size of California – of Alaskan coastline to be protected habitat of the Arctic ringed seal, which is listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

Republicans did not immediately oppose the president's plan, but expressed skepticism at the timing of the White House's announcement.

"Given the lack of interest by industry and the public divide over allowing oil and gas exploration in this area, I am not objecting to this decision at this time," said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

"I think we all recognize that these are some of our state's richest fishing waters," Murkowski said. "What I do not understand is why this decision could not be made within the context of the administration's upcoming plan for offshore leasing – or at least announced at the same time."

According to a 2006 assessment from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees offshore energy development, the North Aleutian Basin contains as much as 2.3 billion barrels of oil equivalent. BOEM says the basin is "gas-prone," as 67 percent of the undiscovered energy reserves consisting of natural gas — the agency estimates there is up to 23.4 trillion cubic feet of gas.

But now, the North Aleutian Basin will remain off limits to oil and gas drilling until lifted by a future administration. To Alaska lawmakers, this is just another example of the federal government locking up the state's economic resources.

"We are not asking to produce everywhere – but right now, we are not being allowed to produce anywhere," Murkowski said. "Despite strong support, we are seeing development blocked in the Chukchi, the Beaufort, in [the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska], and on the Coastal Plain. What we need are decisions to open lands and waters in Alaska, not the familiar and frustrating pattern of shutting everything down."

In recent years, as more land gets locked up for conservation and costs of drilling rise, Alaska has slipped in crude oil production rankings compared to other states. Alaska now ranks fourth in total oil production, behind California.

Alaska oil production has declined in the past two decades, according to government data. Alaska's crude oil production peaked in the early 1988 at more than 2 million barrels per day, but has since fallen to just 477,000 barrels per day in August 2014.

Environmentalists cheered the Obama administration's decision to put Bristol Bay off limits to oil and gas drilling.

"These waters are vital for an abundance of wildlife, including salmon and whales," said Dan Ritzman, Alaska Program Director at the Sierra Club. "For too long, the threat of dirty fuel development has hung over Bristol Bay."

"Thanks to the President's leadership and decades of work by the local community, tribal organizations, and the seafood industry, this area has finally received the protection it deserves," Ritzman said.

Also situated in the Bristol Bay region is the Pebble Mine, potentially one of the world's largest copper and gold mines. Obama's memorandum does not affect the mine's outcome, but does reflect the administration's focus on conservation over development.

Mine developers have been locked in a battle with the EPA for years now, after the agency gave Pebble a poor environmental review based on a hypothetical mine — not a real mine, since no permits have been sought for Pebble and no actual plans for the mine have been put forward.

The EPA looked to be on the verge of preemptively shutting down the mine, but a federal judge ruled last week that the agency could not proceed any further with work on Pebble until a lawsuit with mine developers is settled.

The agency was hoping to announce its decision on the mine as soon as February, but the federal judge's order means the EPA will have to delay its announcement.


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