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Obama and Trudeau Protect Millions of Acres From Drilling in the Arctic and the Atlantic

But questions remain about the permanency of the act in the arctic

Shell's Polar Pioneer drilling platform (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Yesterday, President Obama invoked the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to withdraw 98 percent or 115 million acres of federally-owned Arctic waters, including all possessions in the Chukchi Sea and most of the Beaufort Sea from potential oil and gas drilling. He also protected 3.8 million acres of ocean on the Atlantic Coast from drilling in order to safeguard a series deep coral canyons that stretch from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Canadian border, reports Coral Davenport at The New York Times.  

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, simultaneously announced that his nation was enacting a ban on oil and gas drilling in Arctic waters, to be revisited every five years.

“These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth,” President Obama said in a statement, The Times reports. “They 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.”

Though President Obama refers to the ban as permanent, the use of the 1953 act in this way is a first and it is unclear if the protections will hold. Typically, the law is used to protect coral reefs and marine sanctuaries, report Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Josh Wingrove at Bloomberg Politics. Davenport explains:

"While some presidents have used that law to temporarily protect smaller portions of federal waters, Mr. Obama’s declaration of a permanent drilling ban on portions of the ocean floor from Virginia to Maine and along much of Alaska’s coast is breaking new ground. The declaration’s fate will almost certainly be decided by the federal courts."

Dlouhy and Wingrove point out that courts have ruled in the past that designations under similar laws without an explicit path to reverse them have survived challenges. But they also point out that the Continental Shelf Act does not include language stating that designation of protected waters are considered permanent either.

“It’s never been done before,” Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at Vermont Law School tells Davenport. “There is no case law on this. It’s uncharted waters.”

At the very least, the designation will stymie fossil fuel extraction in the Arctic while the issue moves through the courts, which could take years, writes Davenport. The oil and gas lobby, as expected, is not happy about the designation.

“We think it's a very shortsighted decision to take these areas off-limits,” Andy Radford, senior policy adviser for offshore issues at the American Petroleum Institute tells Jeff Brady at NPR. “[The action poses] great risk to our energy security going forward and eliminates the opportunity to create jobs and help small businesses throughout the country.”

Alaska's elected officials also condemned the move, arguing that the federal government was overstepping its bounds and disregarded the need for more vigorous energy development in their state.

“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,” Alaska governor Bill Walker says in a statement. “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.”

For the time being, the move to withdraw the Arctic from drilling is largely symbolic. Only about 0.1 percent of U.S. federal offshore oil production came from Arctic waters, and it would take decades to create the infrastructure to access other oil reservoirs in the area, reports Erica Martinson at Alaska Dispatch News. Since 1979, only 43 wells have been drilled in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, most for exploration. In February, oil companies held 527 leases in the area, but by October that had dwindled to 43. Martinson says most of those are expected to expire sometime in 2017. The existing leases add up to 205,000 acres and won’t be impacted by the new ruling.

The Obama administration and Canada also announced a joint effort to reduce impacts on the Arctic from shipping, which is expected to increase over the next few decades as Arctic ice retreats. According to the agreement, the Coast Guard will study which routes should be open to shipping and which should be designated as hazardous or environmentally sensitive. The nations also agreed to begin phasing out the use of Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO), a highly polluting energy source.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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