The Obama administration on Friday blocked new exploration for oil and gas in Arctic waters, in a win for environmental groups that had fought development of the ecologically fragile region.
The Department of the Interior released a 2017 to 2022 leasing plan that blocked drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off northern Alaska. It also limited petroleum development in the Cook Inlet off south-central Alaska.
Environmental activists have battled drilling in Alaska to protect whales, walruses, and seals, and as part of a broader movement to keep remaining fossil fuels in the ground.
The Interior Department said the plan was "balanced," and left 70 percent of economically recoverable oil and gas resources open to drilling, mostly in the Gulf of Mexico.
The plan focuses on the best areas "with the highest resource potential, lowest conflict and established infrastructure – and removes regions that are simply not right to lease," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.
Retired Major General Paul Eaton, managing director of the Vet Voice Foundation, hailed the move a victory, not only for the environment, but for US national security.
“Removing the Arctic Ocean from the five year plan is the right decision for our national security, for sensitive Arctic habitats and our climate," Mr. Eaton said in a statement provided to The Christian Science Monitor. "It is increasingly clear that our energy landscape is changing- renewable energy is the future and we can bolster our nation's energy security without compromising the most sensitive landscapes. I applaud the Obama Administration and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell for making the right decision in taking the Arctic off the table.”
Mr. Obama, who last year became the first sitting president to cross the Arctic Circle, has made fighting climate change and protecting the Arctic priorities in his administration.
But President-elect Donald Trump, a Republican who takes office on Jan. 20, 2017, has vowed to open resources to petroleum development and could take steps to reverse the decision.
Oil interests have pressured the administration to explore for energy in the Arctic. Jack Girard, the head of the American Petroleum Institute industry group, said the decision "puts the U.S. at a serious competitive disadvantage."
Russia and Norway have also explored the Arctic, though Exxon Mobil wound down drilling in the Russian north in 2014 due to US sanctions over Moscow's aggression in eastern Ukraine.
Fierce winds and frigid waters make the Arctic treacherous for drilling equipment. After spending billions of dollars to explore the Alaskan Arctic, Royal Dutch Shell retreated in 2015 after suffering a gash in one of its ships and environmentalists had uncovered details of an old law that forced the company to cut exploration there by half.
The US Coast Guard complained when Shell was drilling off Alaska that it had been forced to divert resources, including a vessel that fought cocaine trafficking, to keep operations in the region safe.
Environmentalists applauded the new lease plan, which built on a similar decision in March when the government removed much of the Atlantic ocean from oil and gas leasing for five years.
“We applaud the Obama Administration for doing right by the Arctic and Atlantic for the next five years,” said Rachel Richardson, director of Environment America’s Stop Drilling Program, in a statement provided to the Monitor. “After the hottest year on record, we can’t afford to keep drilling and burning fossil fuels. The only safe amount of drilling for our climate and communities is none at all – that is why President Obama should extend permanent protection for the Atlantic and Arctic oceans before leaving office.”