Barack Obama, in a new and surprising move, has permanently banned new oil and gas drilling in most US-owned waters in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, a last-ditch effort to lock in environmental protections before he hands over to Donald Trump.
The use of a 1953 law was made that allows presidents to block the sale of new offshore drilling and mining rights and makes it difficult for their successors to reverse the decision.
However, Obama’s ban – affecting federal waters off Alaska in the Chukchi Sea and most of the Beaufort Sea and in the Atlantic from New England to the Chesapeake Bay – is extraordinary in scale and could be challenged by Trump in court.
Trump has expressed his sentiment to unleash the country’s untapped energy reserves and exploit fossil fuels. He has previously questioned the science of climate change, threatened to tear up the Paris climate agreement and appointed climate-change deniers in his cabinet. All of these happenings, led to a scramble from environmentalists calling on Obama to impose whatever regulations and executive orders he can to protect his climate legacy.
Tuesday’s move came in a joint announcement by Obama and the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who also put a suspension on new oil and gas leasing in its Arctic waters, subject to periodic review.
Obama, currently on holiday in Hawaii and with only a month left in office, said in a statement that these joint actions are required to protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region of the face of the Earth. He voiced his concern regarding the significant chances of oil spills in these regions despite high safety standards, which may lead to disastrous consequences. “By contrast, it would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region – at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels”, Obama said.
A Department of Interior analysis shows that, at current oil prices, significant production in the Arctic will not occur. “That’s why looking forward, we must continue to focus on economic empowerment for Arctic communities beyond this one sector,” the statement said.
The announcement was welcomed by campaigners as the decision will help protect existing lucrative coastal tourism and fishing businesses from offshore drilling, which promises smaller, short-lived returns and threatens coastal livelihoods. Few energy companies have expressed a wish to drill any time soon off the coasts thanks to abundant cheap shale oil in North Dakota and Texas. Exploratory drilling in the Arctic is costly and risky.
But with Trump in the White House, the obscure law could face a challenge. Dan Naatz of the Independent Petroleum Association of America told the Associated Press: “Instead of building on our nation’s position as a global energy leader, today’s unilateral mandate could put America back on a path of energy dependence for decades to come.”
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.
Source: The Guardian