President Obama today announced he will permanently remove most U.S. Arctic waters and huge portions of the U.S. Atlantic ocean from oil and gas leasing. Obama is invoking a 1953 law governing the Outer Continental Shelf to block drilling in federal waters in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea and most of its Beaufort Sea. He also protected 21 underwater canyons in the Atlantic Ocean from drilling, White House officials said Tuesday.

Today, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau launched actions ensuring a strong, sustainable and viable Arctic economy and ecosystem, with low-impact shipping, science based management of marine resources, and free from the future risks of offshore oil and gas activity. Together, these actions set the stage for deeper partnerships with other Arctic nations, including through the Arctic Council.

Protecting Communities and Wildlife

The values of its Arctic waters for Indigenous, Alaska Native and local communities’ subsistence and cultures, wildlife and wildlife habitat, and scientific research are irreplaceable. The ecosystems are vulnerable to an oil spill; and the unique challenges and risks of oil extraction and spill response in Arctic waters, so the United States is designating the vast majority of U.S. waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas as indefinitely off limits to offshore oil and gas leasing. Canada will designate all Arctic Canadian waters as indefinitely off limits to future offshore Arctic oil and gas licensing, to be reviewed every five years through a climate and marine science-based life-cycle assessment.

Obama bans drilling in Arctic Ocean: €Good news for polar bears and other wildlife in the Arctic

€Polar bears in the Arctic, Photo by Lwp Kommunikáció-CC via Flickr

Recently, in response to requests from Alaska Native communities, President Obama created the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area protecting the cultural and subsistence resources of over 80 tribes as well as one of the largest seasonal migrations of marine mammals in the world of bowhead and beluga whales, walrus, ice seals, and sea birds.

The United States also launched an interagency Economic Development Assessment Team in the Nome region of Alaska to identify future investment opportunities, with other regions to follow. In addition, the Arctic Funders Collaborative (AFC), a group of 11 U.S., Canadian, and international philanthropic foundations, announced the coordination and mobilization of an estimated $27 million in resources for programs across the Arctic over the next three years.

In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard, in consultation with industry, Indigenous communities, and the State of Alaska, has begun a strategy to phase down the use of Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) in the Arctic. The Canadian Coast Guard is conducting similar outreach and consultations to develop proposals to phase down the use of HFO in 2017. The United States and Canada will each, or jointly, propose a plan for consideration at the International Maritime Organization’s spring 2017 meeting.

Obama bans drilling in Arctic Ocean

Photo by Roxanne Desgagnes, via Unsplash

Reactions and Impact

Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “This is a historic victory in our fight to save our Arctic and Atlantic waters, marine life, coastal communities and all they support.

“President Obama used a law employed by multiple presidents to establish these essential protections. There has never been a more important time or more fragile ecosystems for this type of presidential action.

“Today’s bold bi-lateral announcement between Canada and the United States shows North America is leading the world in preserving the Arctic for future generations. President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau have created an indelible legacy as true stewards of the most fragile and threatened ecosystem in the world, and we urge the other Arctic leaders to follow suit.”

It is unclear how President-elect Donald Trump could undo the 2017-2022 leasing plan as the White House said no previous president has tried to undo a drilling withdrawal under the 1953 law, and that there is no provision to do so. We hope, for the sake of the environment and the future generations to come, that this good work won’t be undone.

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