The Arctic regions are considered to be the most prominent resource for fossil fuels. Up to 1/3 of the world’s remaining sources of oil and gas are thought to be hidden under the Arctic Oceans. Therefore, a large dispute about the exploitation of those resources had been ignited between environmental groups and exploration companies. Especially in the US and Canadian parts of the Arctic, the dispute became a major political issue. Now, both US president Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have acted and have declared large areas as protective zones, thus banning all exploration activities.

Good news for both iconic species in the US and Canadian Arctic. Drilling for oil and gas will be banned from their habitats, giving them a moment to catch their breaths. Still, climate change, pollution and increased traffic still pose considerable threats to their environments. Credit: Michael Wenger
Good news for both iconic species in the US and Canadian Arctic. Drilling for oil and gas will be banned from their habitats, giving them a moment to catch their breaths. Still, climate change, pollution and increased traffic still pose considerable threats to their environments. Credit: Michael Wenger

On Tuesday, December 20th 2016, President Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau both made an early Christmas present to environmental and conservation groups. Both leaders declared large areas of their respective Arctic regions to be Protected Zones and thus banned all future drilling plans. Especially, President Obama’s move to protect more than 465’000 km2 from exploration has received wide attention and reactions, mostly positive. He used a little-known law “Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act”, dating back to 1953, to protect parts of the Chukchi and the Bering seas as well as a large stretch of the Atlantic between Virginia and Massachusetts. The famous exception to the rule: Those areas in which oil and gas exploration are taking place already. The announcement by the White House late in the afternoon was coordinated with similar steps being taken by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to shield large areas of that nation’s Arctic waters from drilling. In a statement, White House officials state: “These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth. 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.”

Large areas of the US sector in the Chukchi Sea and the Bering Sea will be off limits for exploration attempts indefinitely. Future president Trump will have a hard time to fulfill his earlier promise to increase US oil and gas output due to the nature of the law. Credit: ABC News
Large areas of the US sector in the Chukchi Sea and the Bering Sea will be off limits for exploration attempts indefinitely. Future president Trump will have a hard time to fulfill his earlier promise to increase US oil and gas output due to the nature of the law. Credit: ABC News

White House officials described their actions to make the areas off limits to future oil and gas exploration and drilling as indefinite. Officials said the withdrawals under Section 12-A of the 1953 act used by presidents dating to Dwight Eisenhower cannot be undone by an incoming president. It is not clear if a Republican-controlled Congress can rescind Obama’s action. “There is a precedent of more than half a century of this authority being utilized by presidents of both parties,” a White House aide said. “There is no authority for subsequent presidents to un-withdraw. . . . I can’t speak to what a future Congress will do. The U.S. is not acting alone today. Canada is acting to put an indefinite stop to activity in its waters as well,” the aide said. “With Canada, we send a powerful signal and reinforce our commitment to work together.” U.S. and Canadian officials have negotiated for months to reach a joint understanding on how to manage adjacent areas in the ocean in an effort to make the new protections as sweeping and politically durable as possible. Meanwhile, advocacy groups lobbied Obama to ban oil and gas leasing in the Arctic entirely. Obama already invoked the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to safeguard Alaska’s Bristol Bay in 2014, and again last year to protect part of Alaska’s Arctic coast. The Beaufort and Chukchi seas are habitat for several species listed as endangered and species that are candidates for the endangered species, including the bowhead whale, fin whale, Pacific walrus and polar bear. Concern for the animals has heightened as the Arctic warms faster than anywhere else in the world and sea ice the bears use to hunt continues to melt.

The Dutch oil company Royal Dutch Shell has put its drilling plans back in their drawers after several failed attempts to drill in the Chukchi Sea. The reasons: not enough oil, technically difficult, too costly. With Obama’s decision, the plans will stay in the drawer indefinitely. Credit: NationalGeographic.com
The Dutch oil company Royal Dutch Shell has put its drilling plans back in their drawers after several failed attempts to drill in the Chukchi Sea. The reasons: not enough oil, technically difficult, too costly. With Obama’s decision, the plans will stay in the drawer indefinitely. Credit: NationalGeographic.com

Reactions from the Republicans came immediately. Senator Ted Cruz, former presidential candidate, twittered: “Yet another Obama abuse of power. Hopefully, on[e] that will be reversed…exactly one month from today”. He closed his Tweet with a hashtag: “Taking away Obama’s pen and phone.” Also, the American Petroleum Institute denounced the decision. “The administration’s decision to remove key Arctic and Atlantic offshore areas from future leasing consideration ignores congressional intent, our national security, and vital, good-paying job opportunities for our shipyards, unions, and businesses of all types across the country,” said Erik Milito, the group’s Upstream director. “Our national security depends on our ability to produce oil and natural gas here in the United States,” Milito said. “This proposal would take us in the wrong direction just as we have become world leader in production and refining of oil and natural gas and in reduction of carbon emissions.” Contradicting the White House’s statement, Milito said George W. Bush removed previous 12-A withdrawal areas with a memorandum and made all but marine sanctuaries available for leasing. “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,” he said. But a wide range of conservation groups hailed the decision. League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski called it “an incredible holiday gift,” saying that “an oil spill in these pristine waters would be devastating to the wildlife and people who live in the region.” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it “a historic victory in our fight to save our Arctic and Atlantic waters, marine life, coastal communities and all they support.” Carter Roberts, president and chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund, applauded what he called “a bold decision” that “signals some places are just too important not to protect.”

Obama’s and Trudeau’s decision to protect their respective Arctic regions definitely is a reason to jump out of joy for all animals. However, more conservative circles in the US have openly opposed the decision out of economic reasons. What will happen in the future remains to be seen. Credit: Michael Wenger
Obama’s and Trudeau’s decision to protect their respective Arctic regions definitely is a reason to jump out of joy for all animals. However, more conservative circles in the US have openly opposed the decision out of economic reasons. What will happen in the future remains to be seen. Credit: Michael Wenger

Source: The Washington Post