President Obama 'indefinitely' bans Arctic offshore oil and gas development

 Arctic Offshore Drilling (KTUU News)
Arctic Offshore Drilling (KTUU News) (KTUU)
Published: Dec. 20, 2016 at 12:44 PM AKST
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A huge swath of Arctic waters are off limits for oil and gas development following simultaneous policy changes by President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The president invoked the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which allows the president to withdraw waters from future lease sales, to "indefinitely" lock up 125 million offshore acres around Alaska.

Impacted is nearly all of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, including known petroleum reserves that have been identified by exploratory wells drilled over the past few decades. The decision also freezes development in adjacent Canadian waters and a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean stretching from New England to Virginia.

While the move is hailed as a significant victory that will conserve an ecologically diverse and sensitive area, plans are already under way to reverse the policy when President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

Senior administration officials, however, insist the new rule will be difficult to overturn.

Oil spill risks, limited infrastructure, and the lack of a viable economic model for Arctic offshore oil motivated the decision, the White House said.

"These actions, and Canada's parallel actions ... reflect the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region’s harsh conditions is limited," the president said in a news release.

Air Station Kodiak would respond if there was an oil spill in the U.S. Arctic. The Coast Guard facility is approximately 1,000 miles, and there is extremely little infrastructure in Northern Alaska: no deepwater port, haul roads leading to oil fields, and limited means of telecommunication.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said criticism of the region for its lack of infrastructure is misplaced: "It really is a false argument to suggest that we can't do anything because you don't have the infrastructure," said the Energy Committee chair, a Republican. "The infrastructure is not going to come until there is a signal that we want you to do business up here."

Overall, criticism from politicians in the Last Frontier focused on the negative economic impacts for the resource dependent state, which is already battered by low oil prices, and the possibility that countries like Russia will step in and develop Arctic oil and gas anyway.

"The Arctic is going to be developed. We know that," said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. "So now what we're going to see is company's taking their resources an their capital to countries that don't have the high standards that we do."

Another critique was that the White House made the decision without consulting leaders from North Slope communities directly impacted by the decision.

The state's Congressional delegation said the move was made "without meaningful consultation," a statement echoed by the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.

“This decision will not stop our climate from changing, but it will inhibit our North Slope communities from developing the infrastructure, communications capability and technology necessary for growth," said Rex Rock, Sr., president of ASRC. "It’s a move which was made without any consultation from the largest private land owners in the U.S. Arctic and yet we will be the ones forced to live with the consequences.”

Senior White House officials in a phone call with reporters told another story: that there was consultation, including talks with Canadian officials, members of Congress, Gov. Bill Walker and other state officials, and various Native and tribal leaders.

While nearly all Arctic waters are now off limits to development, the Obama administration built in exceptions for a near-shore area which generates state revenue. That was included following discussions between Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the governor's administration, the White House said.

Still, Walker railed against the move: "This unprecedented move marginalizes the voices of those who call the Arctic home and have asked for responsible resource development to lower the cost of energy to heat houses and businesses," he said in a news release.

An obvious question is whether or not the move will actually hold up indefinitely.

Senior Obama administration officials in a phone call Tuesday morning with reporters contended that there is no precedent or existing legal process for the move to be overturned by a future administration.

Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack, however, said the state is considering litigation in response to the policy change unveiled Tuesday, as well as other recent decisions restricting coal and delaying lease sales.

Alaska's senators also said in interviews that they plan to push Congress to take action and find a way to reverse the decision shortly after Trump becomes president in less than one month.

Trump's administration includes ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as well as an array of officials who deny scientific consensus on climate change and have an opposite position to Obama on development of fossil fuels.

During the phone call with reporters, KTUU asked White House officials if the outgoing administration plans to make similar moves elsewhere in Alaska, particularly in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Officials declined to answer that question.

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