Obama’s last climate play: US, Canada agree Arctic oil ban

Over 115 million acres of Arctic will be free from oil and gas exploration under decrees by leaders of US and Canada

Activists paddle up to Shell's Polar Pioneer rig in Seattle, to protest Arctic drilling (Flickr/sHell No! Action Council/Charles Conatzer)


In one of his final acts as US president, Barack Obama has determined huge areas of the US’ Arctic and Atlantic seas are “indefinitely off limits” to oil and gas drilling.

The announcement was made on Tuesday evening with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who agreed to similar measures that will be reviewed every five years.

The White House says Obama’s decision – which is based on a 1953 law allowing the president to stop offshore drilling – is permanent and will survive under a Donald Trump administration.

A total of 115 million acres of the Arctic will be protected by the move, which the White House said was at “significant” risk of oil spills had future drilling permits been awarded.

“It would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region – at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels,” said Obama in a statement emailed to media.

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US climate campaigners were quick to signal their approval for the measures, and said they would fight the next administration in court if it tried to reverse the decision.

“Like every bit of climate action now on the books, this designation will be defended vigorously against any Trump administration assaults,” said David Turnbull, campaigns director at Oil Change International.

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

“Presidents can’t reverse their predecessors’ decisions to bar drilling in parts of the outer continental shelf,” added Niel Lawrence, a legal advisor with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a US NGO.

According to US government data 0.1% of US offshore crude production came from the Arctic. Total and Shell are among oil majors to announce they have no plans to drill in the region due to tough conditions and low oil prices.

Still, US oil lobbyists have vowed to fight the move: Erik Milito from the American Petroleum Institute said there is “no such thing as a permanent ban” and warned the API would work with the incoming Trump team to overturn it.

“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.

Trump’s picks for his environment and energy secretaries are both climate sceptics, while he has chosen the CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson, to be his top diplomat.

In an interview on Fox News on 11 December he said he was “studying the implications” of the Paris climate deal ahead of making a call on whether the US should remain or leave the greenhouse gas cutting pact. Trump’s pick for interior secretary Ryan Zinke is also a strong advocate for the fossil fuel industry.

The decision in full:

Due to the important, irreplaceable values of its Arctic waters for Indigenous, Alaska Native and local communities’ subsistence and cultures, wildlife and wildlife habitat, and scientific research; the vulnerability of these ecosystems to an oil spill; and the unique logistical, operational, safety, and scientific challenges and risks of oil extraction and spill response in Arctic waters – the United States is designating the vast majority of U.S. waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas as indefinitely off limits to offshore oil and gas leasing, and Canada will designate all Arctic Canadian waters as indefinitely off limits to future offshore Arctic oil and gas licensing, to be reviewed every five years through a climate and marine science-based life-cycle assessment.

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