By Anders Lorenzen
The Obama Administration has acted to protect millions of acres of Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from offshore oil and gas drilling, in what could be seen as the outgoing US President’s final attempt to protect his environmental legacy from President-Elect Donald Trump.
Just days before Christmas, on December 20th, Obama invoked a provision within the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act protecting currently unleased areas of US waters from future mineral extraction leases. Covering a large portion of the US Arctic as well as 21 underwater canyons in the Atlantic Ocean, the action indefinitely safeguards huge areas of offshore US territory from fossil fuel extraction.
The executive action was taken in conjunction with Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau, who similarly blocked Arctic drilling in all of the Canadian Arctic ocean areas.
This collaborative move from Obama and Trudeau comes as the world awaits the most fossil fuel friendly US administration in decades, where Trump is preparing to take office with Rex Tillerson, CEO of the world’s largest oil company, Exxon, as Secretary of State and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a man still questioning the reality of climate change, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This step by Obama looks to increase the permanency of climate legislation enacted in his term and exemplifies the universal distrust of Donald Trump’s climate ambitions.
In a statement, the US President explained his decision: “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.”
The environmental group Friends of the Earth US celebrated the decision with Climate Campaigner Marissa Knodel stating: “today’s announcement is a major victory for our oceans and climate. Our offshore areas need permanent protection in the face of Donald Trump’s pledge to expand offshore drilling and his cabinet’s ties to Big Oil. We must afford the same protections to the people of the Gulf of Mexico, which has become an energy sacrifice zone. Donald Trump’s actions since the election have made clear that he will put Big Oil’s profits above Americans’ public health. No president has ever rescinded a previous president’s permanent withdrawal of offshore areas from oil and gas development. If Donald Trump tries to reverse President Obama’s withdrawals, he will find himself in court”.
It is estimated that the oil and gas potentials in the Arctic are as high as 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, so a well-funded appeal is expected from a fossil fuel industry that would do anything in its power to make sure Obama and Trudeau’s plan does not go ahead.
Large swathes of Arctic waters are, however, still open for business – amongst other areas 2.8 billion acres of the Beaufort Sea is available to be leased to oil and gas companies for drilling and extraction. Temporarily low oil prices are currently making Arctic ventures economically unfeasible for companies to undertake, but the industry will hope that the recent OPEC deal to control production will result in the price of oil rising significantly: increasing the prospect of expensive oil and gas prospecting once more. In the meantime, Obama will be keen to secure that his environmental legacy would not be easily destroyed by the incoming Trump Administration.