Barack Obama has issued a permanent ban on Arctic oil drilling

Ban on oil drilling in US Arctic

Image credit: Olav Gjerstad

Outgoing US President Barack Obama has issued a permanent ban on oil and gas drilling in the US-owned parts of the Arctic and north Atlantic Ocean.

Obama’s administration cites environmental concerns as well as the low production rate coming from the region as reasons behind the decision.

Areas of the Arctic Ocean around the coast of Alaska are crucial for native communities and the vulnerable ecosystem could be severely damaged by a possible oil spill.

Only 0.1 per cent of offshore crude production came from the Arctic in 2015, and at current oil prices, further development appears to be cost-prohibitive, the administration said.

Obama’s action is being supported by the government of Canada, which has placed a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.

However, the ban comes only a month before pro-fossil fuel President elect Donald Trump takes office. Trump previously said he plans to ease regulations for the oil and gas sector hoping to spur economic growth. The magnate is known for his sceptical stance towards climate change, which he once described as a hoax perpetuated by China. It is expected that Trump will aim to discard of most of the climate change battling policies introduced by Obama’s administration. The President elect previously said he wants to use all available fuel reserves for energy self-sufficiency and open up offshore drilling.

Obama is making use of an arcane provision in a 1953 law to ban offshore leases in the waters permanently. According to the statute ‘the president of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf’.

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

The White House is confident the president’s order will withstand legal challenge and said the language of the statute provides no authority for subsequent presidents to undo permanent withdrawals.

The Atlantic waters placed off limits to new oil and gas leasing are 31 canyons stretching off the coast of New England south to Virginia, though some had hoped for a more extensive ban that would have extended further south.

Existing leases are not affected by the president’s executive actions.

Petroleum industry officials criticised the action.

“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,” said Dan Naatz of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Governor Bill Walker of Alaska, an independent, said Obama’s move marginalised local voices.

Advocacy groups warned they will fight to protect the ban during future administrations.

“If Donald Trump tries to reverse President Obama’s withdrawals, he will find himself in court,” said Marissa Knodel of Friends of the Earth.

Some Democratic politicians applauded Obama’s decision, while it drew criticism from many Republicans.

“As President-elect Trump nominates fossil fuel allies to his Cabinet, President Obama has instead put the interests of millions of Americans ahead of those of Big Oil with these permanent protections,” said Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

“The extremes to which this president will go to appease special interests never ceases to amaze,” countered Utah Republican Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

“This is not a moral calling; it’s an abuse of power.”

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