New protections sees US president pivot to Arctic in attempt to secure reputation as environmental leader
By Sophie Yeo
US president Barack Obama has banned oil and gas drilling in 9.8 million acres of the Arctic ocean, while opening up vast new resources in the Gulf of Mexico.
This means that parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska’s coast can no longer be considered for future oil and gas leases, though it does not revoke existing licenses such as those held by Shell.
The five-year leasing plan means that nearly 80% of the undiscovered technically recoverable oil and gas resources on the US Outer Continental Shelf are available to explore.
“Even as we consider new places that may be appropriate to responsibly develop oil and gas, we can take meaningful steps to protect areas that matter most for our environment, our native communities, and our cultural identity,” said White House staff Mike Boots and Dan Utech in a blog.
Obama has pivoted towards the Arctic as he seeks to secure his legacy as the US president who cares about climate change.
On Sunday, Obama announced that he wants to set aside 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska as wilderness – a move that would see the pristine wilderness protected from exploration by the oil and gas industry.
The protections could bolster the US president’s reputation as a bastion of Arctic stewardship ahead of the US’s assumption of Arctic Council chairmanship in May.
The US administration has already pledged to use this position to strengthen Arctic protections – an aim that has been sidelined in favour of economic and industrial interests during previous countries’ tenures.
“This is the beginning of US activism towards the Arctic,” said Malte Humpert, executive director of The Arctic Institute, a Washington DC based think tank.
“I think these are these first steps for the US to show it’s aware of the Arctic and will make stewardship of the Arctic one of the key tenets of the chairmanship.”
The chairmanship is likely to bring the Arctic into sharper focus at a political level, he told RTCC.
So far, Obama has relied on new regulations for methane, the coal industry and a more progressive stance at the UN climate talks to secure his legacy as an environmental leader.
The Arctic has received little high level attention from Capitol Hill, despite its extreme vulnerability to the impacts of climate change – the icy region is warming at twice the rate of the global average, leading to unprecedented melting of the sea ice.
This has opened up previously inaccessible regions to the oil and gas industry, which is keen to exploit the vast reserves of fossil fuels that lie beneath the pristine environment.
Most recently, the Norwegian government released new licensing blocks due to receding ice cap – the first time they had done so since 1994.
Obama’s decision to designate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a wilderness area – the highest level of federal protection – will have little effect in practice.
The regulation is extremely unlikely to pass through Congress, according to observers, and there is no drilling taking place there at present.
The move represented an easy win for Obama as he seeks to cement his legacy on climate change, added Humpert.
“From Obama’s perspective it was an easy announcement to make. There’s no political risk for him. He doesn’t have to run another election and the oil price is very low so there’s little industry interest there right now,” he said.
As oil prices plummet to less than US$50 a barrel, corporations have been reluctant to push ahead with plans to explore for expensive, difficult Arctic oil. Norwegian oil major Statoil, for instance, recently handed back three exploration licenses off the coast of west Greenland.
Humpert suggested that Obama could turn to the Arctic Council to impose more practical protections, such as setting up new environmental working groups.
Annie Leonard, head of Greenpeace USA, called on Obama to revoke existing licenses.
“To prevent this situation from worsening, President Obama needs to heed the overwhelming scientific consensus that we must keep untapped fossil fuels in the ground and rule out all offshore Arctic drilling for good, starting with cancelling Shell’s lease in the Chukchi sea this spring.”