In an effort to provide long-lasting protection to fragile Arctic ecosystems, President Obama has enacted an expansive, permanent ban on oil and gas leasing in several Arctic and Atlantic Ocean areas.
The president has designated a large portion of the U.S. Chukchi Sea and the vast majority of the U.S. Beaufort Sea as permanently off-limits to drilling leases, saying the risks far outweigh any possible, distant-future benefits.
"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 statement. "By contrast, it would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region –- at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels."
The agreement comes following Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to the District of Columbia, where the two leaders committed to a joint framework on Arctic drilling by the end of this year and cited the Paris climate agreement.
"Today, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau are proud to launch actions ensuring a strong, sustainable and viable Arctic economy and ecosystem, with low-impact shipping, science based management of marine resources, and free from the future risks of offshore oil and gas activity," the leaders said in a joint statement.
Between lands earlier protected in 2015 and those added today under the agreement, nearly 125 million acres in the Arctic are now protected from future oil and gas development. The president also designated 31 Atlantic Ocean canyons off-limits to oil and gas exploration in today's announcement.
According to the administration, one-tenth of one percent of U.S. offshore crude production comes from Arctic. They also point to research showing long term drilling has a greater than 75 percent chance of a large oil spill in the area and given the remote areas, cleanup would be difficult.
Under usual circumstances, any executive order the president enacts can be reconsidered and potentially overturned by a new president. However, Obama is using a provision in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953, which says that the president has the right reserve some offshore areas and keep them off the market.
"The President of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf," section 1341 of the act states.
In 2014, ExxonMobil, operating under an agreement with the Russian government, found an oil field in the Arctic that they estimated to be worth 750 million barrels of oil. However, due to sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Crimea, the company's Arctic work was halted.
While the Obama Administration remains confident that there is no precedent or legal authority for the incoming Trump administration to reverse the Arctic withdrawal, as it has been made under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953, the president-elect could lift sanctions on Russia, freeing ExxonMobil or other companies to drill in the Arctic in Russian territory.
Earlier this month, Obama signed an executive order providing greater protections to the northern Bering Sea.