Obama closes Arctic indefinitely

  • President Barack Obama took action under a 1953 law to indefinitely ban offshore drilling in nearly all of Alaska's Arctic waters on Tuesday.

HONOLULU (AP) — President Barack Obama has designated the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean as indefinitely off limits to future oil and gas leasing.

The move on Tuesday helps put some finishing touches on Obama's environmental legacy while also testing President-elect Donald Trump's promise to unleash the nation's untapped energy reserves.

Environmental groups hope the ban, despite relying on executive powers, will be difficult for future presidents to reverse.

The White House says Obama has used a provision in a 1953 law to ban offshore leases in the waters permanently.

The Atlantic waters placed off limits are 31 canyons stretching off the coast of New England south to Virginia.

Canada is also placing a moratorium on new leasing in its Arctic waters.

In a joint statement with Canada, the White House stated, “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, and 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.”

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker expressed his displeasure with the action.

“This unprecedented move marginalizes the voices of those who call the Arctic home and have asked for responsible resource development to lower the cost of energy to heat houses and businesses,” Walker said in a statement from his office. “For centuries, the Arctic has provided food for those in the region. No one is more invested than Alaskans to ensure that the habitats within the Arctic are protected. To lock it up against any further exploration or development activity is akin to saying that the voices of activists who live in Lower 48 cities have a greater stake than those to whom the Arctic is our front yard and our back yard. 

“During my phone call with Secretary Sally Jewell earlier today, she acknowledged that she and her team at the U.S. Department of the Interior took into consideration the requests that Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack and I made during multiple meetings with her in Washington, D.C., and in Fairbanks. We highlighted the areas of the Arctic most likely to provide revenue to the state. These efforts are reflected in that those regions were not included in the administration’s final decision.

“However, this concession is not satisfactory because the administration has already failed to include these same areas in its most recent five-year leasing plan.”

Last month, Obama pulled the Chukchi and Beaufort seas from the next five-year outercontinental shelf leasing plan and withdrew a large area from the Bering Sea as a “climate resilience area.”

The Alaska congressional delegation’s last-minute plea for a sitdown with Obama fell on deaf ears.

In a letter detailing a litany of anti-development moves, the delegation wrote to Obama that, “Your administration has also locked away half of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, imposed costly and extralegal mitigation requirements on the companies seeking to develop there, sought to turn the Arctic Coastal Plain into de facto wilderness, issued land management plans that replace opportunity with regulatory burden, seized authority to manage wildlife in our national parks and refuges from the State of Alaska, and most recently designated the northern Bering Sea as a “climate resilience area”—a vague term with no legal basis.” 

Industry groups are confident that the ban will not stand and Trump can simply issue a new proclamation after taking office that would allow for oil and gas production in the Atlantic. They point to President George W. Bush, who in July 2008 lifted some executive bans on Outer Continental Shelf leasing and drilling.

"There's no such thing as a permanent ban," said Erik Milito, a policy director at the American Petroleum Institute.

But Niel Lawrence, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the result of a Trump proclamation isn't so clear-cut. He said the statute says a president can withdraw waters from the country's leasing plans and "it doesn't say you can put back in."

If Trump does issue an order reversing Obama's proclamation, it would be up to environmental groups or others to challenge his actions in court. If he doesn't, then it would be up to Congress to intervene.

"My guess is that Congress has better things to do," Lawrence said. "The industry is not clamoring to get into these places. Any return on investment is decades away."

The Trump administration could also take a more gradual approach of changing the nation's five-year leasing plan to put the waters back in play. That would buy groups on both sides time to make their case about the need or lack thereof to drill off the Atlantic coast.

Milito said keeping oil and gas production in the Atlantic as an option is important in the event U.S. reserves elsewhere are depleted. The U.S. should not have to rely on other countries for oil and gas supplies to ensure affordability and availability, he said.

"We have to look to the future so that we can maintain our status as an energy superpower and so that we can continue to rely on U.S. oil and gas production to fulfill our economic needs," Milito said.

 

Updated: 
12/22/2016 - 10:53am

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