US and Canada declare their Arctic waters off-limits for oil exploration
Trump administration may not be able to reverse Obama’s decision.
On Tuesday, President Obama announced a surprising move to make most of the US portion of the Arctic Ocean off-limits to oil and gas production indefinitely, along with a line of submarine canyons off the East Coast. The decision cites vulnerable ecosystems, and in the case of the Arctic, the high risk of accidents in an unforgiving environment. At the same time, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the indefinite closure of the entirety of the Canadian Arctic to new drilling leases—though this decision is subject to five-year reviews.
Excluding about 3 million acres in a strip along the coast, which a document released by the Department of the Interior says “has high oil and gas resource potential and is adjacent to existing state oil and gas activity and infrastructure,” the other 125 million acres of Arctic seafloor north of Alaska will be off-limits for new leases. About 200,000 acres had already been leased to oil and gas companies in the past, though there isn’t much industry activity on those leases given the logistical challenges and high costs.
The Department of the Interior manages the continental shelf area controlled by the US, setting out five-year plans for where leases can be sold. But Tuesday’s action is not an easily reversible five-year leasing plan. Instead, President Obama is using the authority of a 1953 law called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Apart from putting the Department of the Interior in charge of leases, the law says that “The president of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the Outer Continental Shelf.”
Previous presidents have used this provision to set aside areas for 10 to 20 years, but Obama is putting no sunset date on this decision.
With the incoming Trump administration looking to undo many of Obama’s environmental moves, a fight seems likely to follow this decision. But since this is not a simple executive action, it can’t simply be undone by another executive action.
The Obama administration thinks the law gives the president power to withdraw areas, while giving no powers to expand or reinstate areas. The Trump administration will almost certainly seek to challenge that position given its stated support for increasing fossil fuel leasing on public lands—an effort Trump’s choice for Interior secretary has emphasized.
Even if the Trump administration manages to reverse the move, petroleum industry interest in the area is not currently high. A number of Arctic leases were sold in 2008, but almost all were given up in the last couple years as oil prices were far too low for expensive Arctic exploration to make sense. Shell famously walked away last year after spending billions and drilling just one well, which didn’t produce as hoped.
[Scott Johnson | ars technica]