President Obama Protects Arctic Waters

Outgoing President Barack Obama executed a critical order on Tuesday by banning any new gas and oil drilling in federal waters in Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. The move comes as an environmental safeguard prior to the new Republican administration taking office January 20th lead by President elect Donald Trump.

Utilizing a 1950s-era law termed the Outer Continental Shelf Act, Obama used the power of President to limit areas from mineral leasing and drilling. Trump’s incoming administration will only be able to challenge and change the edict by fighting it in court according to several environmental groups agreeing with the order.

Arctic waters

Map of the Arctic waters to the north of Alaska just protected by President Obama. BOEM image.

The Alaskan waters ban affects 115 million acres in the Chukchi Sea and most of the Beaufort Sea as well as 3.8 million acres in the Atlantic Ocean. A main concern of environmental advocates regarding fuel exploration in the region is the devastating affects an oil spill or gas leakage in the oceans would have on the ecosystems. Such a remote and harsh climate would severely limit the capabilities of clean-up crews and emergency response teams. Wildlife such as polar bears, whales, seals and fish would be harmed and populations of the animals could be irreversibly destroyed.

Trump has continually stated that he will seek to expand offshore oil and gas drilling in the waters north of Alaska. Recent releases from his energy transition team  predicted increases in production in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. These forecasts have been dealt a serious blow and are likely “dead in the water” at this time. Trump spokespeople would not comment on the actions.

Very limited oil and gas exploration has been happening in recent years as less expensive shale oil production primarily out of Texas and North Dakota has been the priority. Drilling off Arctic shores in Alaska is more expensive and risky in nature. Most notably, Shell Oil pulled out of the waters just last year following a shipping accident and limitation laws discovered by environmental groups limiting exploration.

Proponents for drilling such as the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry group, stated that Trump would be able to use a presidential memorandum to lift the ban rendering the move by Obama obsolete. “We are hopeful the incoming administration will reverse this decision as the nation continues to need a robust strategy for developing offshore and onshore energy,” said Erik Milito, API’s upstream director.

Arctic Ocean Alaska

A view over the now protected Arctic waters from Barrow, Alaska. NASA photo.

Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are in agreement with protecting Arctic waters. The two leaders are initiating joint actions and these actions “reflect the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region’s harsh conditions is limited.” stated Obama.

In similar action Trudeau and Canada will designate all Arctic Canadian waters off limits indefinitely to any future offshore Arctic gas and oil licensing. These sanctions will be reviewed every five years through a climate and marine science-based life-cycle assessment. Obama’s action, unlike the five year review applied to the Canadian law, contains no designated analysis period outlined for the U.S. law.

Under current law, authorization is not granted for reversing a previous presidential order of this kind so efforts by Trump to challenge this move will most likely need to be taken up in court via a lawsuit.

“No president has ever tried to undo a permanent withdrawal of an ocean area from leasing eligibility,” said Neil Lawrence, Alaska director and attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Video – Orcas Hunting Seals in Antarctica

This thrilling footage of orca whales coordinating a seal hunt in Antarctica exhibits the collaboration these animals rely on to maximize their potential to capture prey in the harsh conditions of Antarctica. Orcas have been spotted more regularly in the Arctic waters this past decade and are increasingly hunting those waters with more ice – free days. The Hudson Bay waters around Churchill have been frequented by orcas within the last few years. It will be interesting to see how these animals interact with polar bears as they compete for prey during the ice free or even semi ice – free seasons.


Manitoba Province Urging Beluga Protection

Belugas down under AVDM
Nearly a quarter, 57,000, of the worlds beluga population estimated at 200,000 migrate to the Western Hudson Bay estuaries of the Seal, Nelson and Churchill Rivers. The province of Manitoba is hoping the liberal government keeps promises made during the 2015 election to protect five per cent of Canada’s more than 200,000 kilometer coastline by 2017 and include this region. Manitoba government is pushing hard for protection of these estuaries as part of their new Beluga Habitat Sustainability Plan.If the plan goes through and is implemented it would protect moulting, feeding and calving areas for the nearly 60,000 belugas along the Hudson Bay coast in the Churchill region. This area comprises the largest sub – population in the world …a quite healthy population indeed. Nearly half the other populations, including the St. Lawrence River group in eastern Canada, are not doing as well. Increased development has deployed carcinogens through harmful chemicals into these waters.The proposal from Manitoba province will also include requests to amend federal legislation regulating pollution in Arctic waters south of the 60 degrees lattitiude so to cover the fragile ecosysystems in the estuaries frequented by the belugas. Although the current status of these creatures is healthy, rapid change in the Arctic could affect the species adversely in the near future.
beluga-map-hudson-bayDevelopment along the rivers directly related to reduced ice formation in the Arctic was listed as potential threat to the belugas of Manitoba. The difference between these river sanctuaries and the St. Lawrence where massive development has caused negative effects and subsequent “threatened” classification of that beluga whale population is vast. However a future change in commerce due to global warming could change things for Hudson Bay belugas in a hurry.A direct consequence of arctic ice melt would be increased shipping leading to extensive noise pollution that would harm the belugas ability to echo-locate and communicate with one another. Warming trends also have implications on the beluga’s winter feeding grounds in the Hudson Strait in the northeast. The ice harbors algae that sustain fish that belugas prey upon as well serving as a safe haven for the belugas hiding from killer whales. These predators are quite common in the bay in recent years due to more access from longer ice free periods.A key consideration in Churchill, and more specifically the Churchill River, is the long term strategy of the Port of Churchill, currently in the process of changing ownership. The relationship and interactions between the port and the belugas to date have been very good. With new owners and possible new directions in shipping from the facility it is important to cover all the angles with regards to water contamination and shipping routes and frequency.

With belugas coming to Churchill each summer there has been an increase in tourism as a result. The economic benefits from this would be adversely affected if protection was not placed on the estuary.

Beluga whales in the Churchill River under the watchful eyes of Natural Habitat travelers.

Beluga whale watching near the port of Churchill. Natural Habitat photo

Because of these current and impending threats, advocates and researchers are intent on protecting the clean estuaries now before the need becomes dire. Once development ensues to a higher degree as a result of environmental change it could be too late Thinking ahead and protecting these areas now is crucial!

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