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Bush may lift ban on oil drilling off Alaska

President Bush is deciding whether to lift 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.

Lease sales in a portion of the area rich in oil and natural gas ended nearly two decades ago 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 the North Aleutian Basin. That includes Bristol Bay and part of the southeastern Bering Sea.

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

Environmentalists oppose drilling there because of the potential for oil spills and harm to wildlife. They have speculated in recent days that Bush might allow such drilling before Democrats regain control of Congress in January.

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.

Two hundred-million barrels of crude oil, about what the United States 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 U.S. annual production.

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.