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.
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.
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.