Huge: President Obama indefinitely blocks new drilling in much of Arctic Ocean

A polar bear on ice in the Beaufort Sea, which is being protected from new oil and gas leases.

Credit: Collection of Dr. Pablo Clemente-Colon (NOAA National Ice Center), flickr.

The president is using a decades-old law to protect large stretches of the extraordinary Arctic Ocean ecosystem and underscore the nation's commitment to fighting climate change.

President Obama's action prevents new oil and gas leasing in most of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas as well as part of the Atlantic Ocean, placing a vital check on industry. It also increases protection for the coastlines of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), helping to safeguard habitat for polar bears, whales, walruses, seals and seabirds, as well as vital subsistence resources for coastal villages that depend on the ocean as a source of food. 

The administration is exercising a provision of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, signed in 1953, that presidents including Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush have used to withdraw sensitive offshore areas from oil and gas leasing. 

“With this action, President Obama is protecting the extraordinary Arctic Ocean ecosystem while preventing an oil industry free-for-all in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas," said Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society. "Last week’s Arctic lease sales made abundantly clear that industry will have plenty of access to Arctic oil reserves. However, some places are too special and deserve permanent protection.”  

“With this action, President Obama is protecting the extraordinary Arctic Ocean ecosystem while preventing an oil industry free-for-all in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas."

In mid-November, the Obama administration announced it would remove the Arctic Ocean from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s offshore oil and gas leasing program during a five-year period starting in 2017, but today's move extends that protection indefinitely. 

Drilling does not belong in the Arctic Ocean, period 

As Shell proved during its ill-fated 2012 and 2015 drilling seasons, the oil and gas industry is incapable of safely operating in such a remote and challenging environment. Offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean would pose a direct threat to the sensitive coastlines of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Depending on the location and conditions at the time of a major oil spill, these fragile places could suffer massive harm. 

And a spill is more than a remote possibility. The Department of the Interior projected that there was a 75 percent chance of at least one major oil spill resulting from potential oil development following its 2008 Arctic Ocean lease sale. The nearest U.S. Coast Guard base is approximately 800 miles away and the stormy, icy seas are extremely hazardous. 

Even if the infrastructure were in place to respond to such an incident—and it is not—the industry doesn’t have the technology to recover significant amounts of spilled oil from the turbulent waters.  

Important statement on need to tackle climate change 

In addition to safeguarding the irreplaceable Arctic Ocean, President Obama's move is another in a long line of decisions to clamp down on the fossil fuels that drive greenhouse gas emissions and worsen climate change.  

Underscoring the urgency of policies that take future fossil fuel development off the table, the announcement comes just hours after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual Arctic Report Card, which found that surface air temperature for the region is "by far" the highest recorded since 1900, while sea ice retreat is at near-record levels. The Arctic is often likened to the proverbial "canary in the coal mine," a fragile bellwether for climate change on a global scale.  

Will Trump tear down this major Obama victory? 

As with so many pieces of positive news coming out of the Obama administration in the last month, we must temper our enthusiasm with a look at the next president.  

It has been speculated that placing the Arctic Ocean back on the table for drilling would be "first off the bat," along with rolling back regulations on oil companies, for President-elect Trump. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has already said he supports reopening the Arctic Ocean immediately. 

However, it is unclear whether Trump will be able to reverse President Obama's order at all; If he tries, it may take a drawn-out legal battle. We will be watching vigilantly, gearing up to defend President Obama's act and prevent anti-conservationist lawmakers from enacting a drill-first agenda on American lands and waters.