Humpback – Ilulissat, west coast Greenland. Photo: Nicholas Engelmann

Obama's Latest Big Move Means There Might Still Be an Arctic to Visit in 20 Years

by Cathy Brown Dec 23, 2016

Anyone hoping to one day visit a pristine Arctic to whale watch or see polar bears, or perhaps more to the point — the wildlife and communities of the Arctic region itself — just had important safeguards put in place by the Obama administration.

Together Obama and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau banned oil and gas drilling in 115 million acres of the Arctic Ocean and 3.8 million acres of the Atlantic Ocean. The move happened it in such a way that it will be tricky for the incoming Trump administration to overturn. (Trump has promised to make fossil fuel mining and drilling across the nation’s lands and waters a central feature of his economic program – and seems to be serious if we look at his EPA pick.)

The 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act gave the federal government jurisdiction over all submerged lands that are more than three miles offshore. It states that the Department of the Interior has the power to lease offshore tracts for oil and natural gas, but its section 12(a) allows the president to “withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer continental shelf.” There is no provision included for a succeeding president to reverse it, so any action taken to withdraw unleashed lands is presumed to be permanent.

“These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on Earth,” Obama said. “They 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.”

“By removing the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from the five-year plan, President Obama declared that the preservation of our waters from offshore drilling is paramount to protecting our beaches, the climate, and coastal economies,” said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. “Today’s announcement reaffirms that fact and prevents future administrations from destroying our waters and coastal communities.”

Not everyone is psyched. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), for example, had this to say on Twitter: “Yet another Obama abuse of power. Hopefully, on[e] that will be reversed… exactly one month from today” after Trump’s inauguration. Hashtag: “Taking away Obama’s pen and phone.”

“Our national security depends on our ability to produce oil and natural gas here in the United States,” Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute said. “This proposal would take us in the wrong direction just as we have become world leader in production and refining of oil and natural gas.”

While the big business you might assume is the most affected by a decision such as this would be the oil industry, the tourism industry actually has a lot at stake. An earlier plan to allow drilling off the Atlantic coast was shot down after state governments along the southern Atlantic coasts (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia) all expressed rational fear that drilling, and a possible disaster like the BP spill off the Gulf of Mexico, would put at risk their beaches and entire tourist industry. One spill and, bam!, game over for tourism.

The areas that Obama protected, the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, are not only pristine places to visit, but are habitat for several endangered species and species that are candidates for the endangered species list, including the bowhead whale, fin whale, Pacific walrus and polar bear. Concern for the bears in this area has grown immensely as the sea ice they use to hunt continues to melt. An oil spill would be more of a hit than these already-at-stake animals could likely handle. Alaska Natives from Nuiqsut, Fort Yukon, Point Hope and Hooper Bay issued a statement thanking Obama for the move to protect Arctic waters for subsistence users.

Back in August Obama created the largest protected place on the planet, but he’s amping it up in his last weeks. It seems like Obama might not have the most faith in Trump to take care of the environment in a responsible way. Obama is racing to tie up as many loose ends as he can to protect the water. On December 15, his administration refused to renew expired mining lease applications for copper and nickel mines right by the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. On December 19, the Interior Department finalized a rule to protect coal-country rivers and streams by stating that coal companies have to restore depleted surface mines back to their pre-mining condition. (Many coal companies just declare bankruptcy once they are done mining, leaving taxpayers to pay the cost of such reclamation).

While the election of Trump has given nature lovers some very large issues to fear, it’s at least nice to know that one small habitat of the world is a little more protected and will be able to be enjoyed by travelers for years to come.

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