In one of his last major move while in office, President Barack Obama enacted a five-year ban on new exploration for oil and natural gas in Arctic waters.
The ban, announced Friday, is part of the Department of the Interior’s 2017 – 2022 plan for energy development in federal waters, which also blocks exploration in the less-economically viable Alaska and the Atlantic waters, and instead limits new exploration to other US waters, including the Gulf of Mexico.
“The plan focuses on lease sales in the best places — those with highest resource potential, lowest conflict, and established infrastructure — and removes regions that are simply not right to lease,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement Friday. “Given the unique and challenging Arctic environment and industry’s declining interest in the area, forgoing lease sales in the Arctic is the right path forward."
The plan blocks drilling off northern Alaskan Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and limits petroleum development in the south-Central Alaskan Cook Inlet. It also slashed plans to allow offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of four southern states.
Amid backlash from oil companies, the Interior Department said that the plan was “balanced” and that 70 percent of economically viable oil and gas resources were still open. Given the current low oil prices, many energy companies already considered drilling in Alaska to be too risky an investment.
For environmentalists, who have fought against the dangerous practice of drilling through ice in the ecologically fragile regions, this is a big win, even while many would like to see an even tougher, longer-term ban on drilling.
“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.”
A year ago, the Obama administration canceled oil lease sales for drilling in Alaskan waters, citing a lack of interest from oil companies.
Many Alaskans weren't happy with the decision, as The Christian Science Monitor reported.
The Alaskan state government depends on oil revenue almost exclusively for its income; in 2014, the state took in $5.4 billion from oil revenue. That revenue has gone towards, among other things, funding preventative and curative programs for at-risk Alaskan Native youth.
"[The Department of the Interior] just took real opportunity, significant opportunities that could benefit thousands if not tens of thousands of Alaskans off the table," Senator Dan Sullivan (R) of Alaska told the Associated Press. "That's not going to help the social problems. That's actually going to make them worse."
However, when President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January, many observers suspect that he'll take steps to reverse the latest offshore drilling ban in order to follow through on his campaign promises of deregulating the energy sector.
Jack Girard, the head of the American Petroleum Institute industry group, told Reuters the Obama decision "puts the U.S. at a serious competitive disadvantage."
But removing the offshore drilling ban is unlikely to be a simple process.
The Washington Post reports that both oil company officials and environmental groups say that Trump would not be able to quickly lift the five-year ban, but would have to prepare a supplemental report that could take up to two years to compile if a new environmental impact assessment is needed.
“Removing the Arctic Ocean from the five-year plan is the right decision for our national security, for sensitive Arctic habitats and our climate," Ret. Major Gen. Paul Eaton, managing director of the Vet Voice Foundation, a US veterans group that advocates on a range of issues including clean energy, homelessness, LGBT rights, hailed the move a victory, not only for the environment, but for US national security, 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.”
Material from Reuters contributed to this report.